Rankings don’t kill people, grade inflaters do

Trigger warning: Mental health, suicide

Another day, another announcement of another state-driven initiative to discipline academics and solve a state-created problem. This week, it’s grade inflation – something the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, has talked about off-and-on for a long time, and now, we are told, there’s going to be a ‘crackdown’. The question of grade inflation is something which has divided academic opinion. however. The last time there was a major (read: think-tank/media-driven) furore over grade inflation, academic social media seemed squarely in denial, which fitted neatly with government/media attempts to narrativise said academics as an ‘out of touch’ ‘producer group’ in neoliberal vocabulary, who would simply deny reality rather than face up to a real problem.

Of course, the story is never so straightforward. Academics’ individual experiences are varied, and they speak primarily from that experience – many will work in institutions where the very idea of grade inflation is met with scorn, where the integrity of the degree is prized, and so on. That doesn’t account for unconscious pressures or biases – it’s entirely possible to believe you’ve never marked more highly than you would have done in the past and nonetheless done just that – but it’s patronising to any group as a whole to completely disregard their view as some sort of false consciousness. If something is going on, then it seems fair to assume that not everyone who denies it is a party to it.

But the fractured nature of academic experience does, I’d argue, matter. Some (but not so many) years ago, I was teaching at a post-92 university and subsequently on a casual basis at Cambridge. In the internal exam board at the former – where no external examiner was present – we were asked by a member of staff, concerned about our relative league table position to a competitor, to ‘knock up the grades by ten per cent’. To the chair of the board’s credit, the suggestion was ignored (and strongly rejected), though the chair was being put under pressure. At Cambridge, though the pressures may also have been there, I was never made explicitly aware of them when marking. At the risk of reinforcing stereotypes, and speaking in the language of the market, this was a brand-confident institution which simply did not have to worry about its competitor down the road. The same was not true of many other institutions.

Now, advocates of the reality of grade inflation would seize on the above anecdote and say, ‘see? It IS real.’ But that misses two key points about the story. One, that whilst under extreme pressure to do otherwise, an academic committed to their sense of self as a professional, withstood that pressure. And two, which this piece argues is the real problem – where does that pressure come from?

Standfast the protestations of many academics, and prima facie the case for the existence of grade inflation looks convincing. The policy regime this academic was inducted into as a scholar taking his first steps into teaching – ‘never give a mark above 75 unless it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen’ – is long gone in favour of a whole range of institutional policies across the sector encouraging the ‘full range’ of marks. Ostensibly, this is ‘best practice’, designed to reward undergraduates for the excellence (very real) of much undergraduate work. Comment is also made of the need to not simply ‘wave through’ students with marks of 40 or condoned fails. But where such policies are implemented  (and this has been in most places) it is often the case – as the headline data shows – that marks go up.

These policy changes, and attendant rises in grades, have taken place against a background of the rapid marketisation of the higher education and one successfully-realised government policy ambition – to transform the student into a consumer. The hyper-consumerist logics now embedded in undergraduate populations – and the deification of the idealised consumer that accompanies this in government policy rhetoric – has unintended consequences, however.

Teaching Evaluation Questionnaires (TEQs), as they were known in the late ’90s, once a genuine attempt to try to reflect on what had worked about a module, and what hadn’t – improving the course for the benefit of everybody (or not, it must be admitted, sometimes) – have now been effectively weaponised as parts of probation and promotion processes, or even capability procedures for those confirmed in post. One of the quickest ways to boost your TEQ score? Give them the marks they want, and avoid what one colleague in one institution in the post-Browne era described as ‘hunting season’, when work is handed back and (a minority of) angry students stalk the corridors to yell abuse at academic staff, as encapsulated in the immortal phrase ‘I’m not paying nine grand for a 2:2’.

TEQs meanwhile have in many cases been redesigned to map against the National Student Survey questionnaire; whereas many universities used to undertake a ‘pre-NSS’, now this is effectively happening already at module level. What’s the common feature here? Marketisation, to be sure, but something even more specific than that. Rankings.

University league tables are increasingly seen as a do-or-die issue for universities across the sector. When Birkbeck decided to pull out of UK ones last week – as it felt they didn’t give it a fair crack – it was widely applauded. But Birkbeck is very much the exception. As Max Lu, the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey puts it, in a quote on the Times Higher Education website:

Through both its content and rankings, THE has been my source of information and intelligence on how the global higher education sector is moving, and the main channel of information for me to understand the higher education and research policy landscape of the UK and elsewhere. I enjoy its sharp and succinct commentary of the current issues and developments that are very insightful and useful. As for the rankings, THE has gained much credibility and wide recognition as it has more balanced set of metrics, and is not subject to gaming.

Lu has only been in post at Surrey since 2016, so he came after the university had decided to put over 150 staff on ‘informal’ capability procedures for failing to meet a targeted teaching score on their student feedback. In 2017, Surrey awarded 41% of its graduates first-class honours – ‘more than doubling the proportion from five years ago’ according to the BBC at the time. Surrey – a former of College of Advanced Technology which became a university in the 1960s – has soared up the league tables; in a page on its website, the university explains how important rankings are to its ‘success’:

So what is it that gives the University of Surrey the edge over its competitors?

For Chemical and Petroleum Engineering student Mohammed Ismail, the rankings were a major deciding factor for his choice to study at Surrey. The 18-year-old undergraduate from Egypt explains the first thing he noticed was the incredible drive to succeed among both students and teachers. It’s infectious and highly motivating.

Given that some UK league tables – rankings – care about proportions of 2:1s and firsts, and that they typically also include student satisfaction proxies NSS scores, it’s hard to see how purveyors of rankings such as Phil Baty at Times Higher Education can reasonably describe them as the ‘tail wagging the dog’ In fairness to Baty, as he has argued in the past, the THE’s own table is more careful than most in avoiding ‘good honours’ as a proxy for teaching. But other’s aren’t, student satisfaction is still important, and the key issue remains the competitive ethic rankings are desgined to foster.

As such, rankings are intrinsic to how university managerial teams run their institutions, how they assess the performance of staff, and – in a real sense – how attractive they are to applicants who, in a highly-marketised system with provisions for university ‘exit’ now written into the Office of Students’ mandate – are the primary source of income for most institutions. Universities can, and some shortly will, go bust. For university managers, rankings – as they seem them – are essential for working out where they are in the ‘game’ of a marketised higher education landscape, for demonstrating to governing bodies and to Whitehall that they have personally made a ‘transformative’ impact. They really do deserve that damehood or knighthood, y’know?

And rankings are essential to the alienation of the academic from their labour. Whilst most join academia out of a sense of vocation (let’s be clear, that doesn’t mean they mean one kind of vocation, for some it’s research, for some teaching, for others both), they find themselves in an oppositional relationship to students who can wield the power of career life-or-death over them. The path of least resistance in market systems is often an attractive one.

But that doesn’t mean academics feel good about it. Academia is in the grip of a mental health crisis; whilst much attention has focus on students, who themselves are facing the immense difficulties and burdens of debt and pressure in a marketised system, relatively less has been given to academics themselves. In August last year, the THE reported that academics faced a greater risk of common mental health disorders ‘than other professions’: 37% per cent of academics stated they had mental health problems. 

As someone with mental health issues that have been exacerbated by my academic work, it’s hard not to recognise that picture. This summer, the Guardian explicitly made the link to ‘universities league table obsession’ driving the ‘mental health crisis’ amongst academics. That was in connection to REF, but the ‘drivers’ were the same – rankings and money. When Professor Stefan Grimm of Imperial committed suicide in 2014, his note made explicit reference to the pressures of metrics, and how management had said he wasn’t meeting expectations in this regard.

And yet, in the marketised nightmare which UK HE has become, a highly ‘steered’ (Brown and Carasso) system subject to unending audit and surveillance with rankings at the heart of that, the popular villain remains the academic, who is neither the author of the system they are working under, nor (generally speaking) a true believer in it.

Simultaneously, government abdicates responsibility for a problem it created – the pressure to mark high to keep the customer satisfied – whilst rankings organisations, publications and companies speak of tails wagging dogs. At best, it is an abdication of responsibility on an epic scale. At worst, it is uninhibited hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, academics get sick, driven out of jobs and suffer career-death, or occasionally, worse. And students, always the collateral damage of government policy decisions, get sick too, and are unable to get the support they need, at least in part because the people most able to help them are too busy fighting for survival and dealing with the metrics that caused the problems in the first place.

This is a necessarily impressionistic and personal take on rankings and metrics; scholarly and scientific critiques abound. But the current government-driven farce over grade inflation remains a classic case of ‘responsibilisation’ under neoliberalism – here making academics the guilty parties for a situation, however real, they did not create, and of which they are amongst the most significant casualties.

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