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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:31 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wakeham Lord Wakeham Conservative 4:31 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, first, I say to the right reverend Prelate how much we appreciated her speech today and on other occasions. It takes me back 25 years, to when I was Leader of the House and invited the then Archbishop of Canterbury to have dinner with me, because I thought the Bishops were very good at saying Prayers but never made much of a contribution afterwards. I felt that many of them had a lot of useful things to say, if only we could persuade them to do it. I must say that it is vastly different today, and the right reverend Prelate is a fine example of someone who has something to say worth listening to.

Tonight, I shall raise the issue of standards in our universities and say something about my concern about the associated issue of grade inflation and the awarding of degrees. There is nothing about this in the Queen’s Speech, but I think I have found out why, and I shall come to that in a minute. First, I should declare my interest. I was for 15 years chancellor of a university, and I have awarded degrees to a considerable number of noble Lords over the years. One was in his place a few minutes ago, but I cannot see any just at the moment. If I have missed someone, I am frightfully sorry.

Looking back over those years, the occasion I always remember was, during the Olympic Games, awarding an honorary degree to Roger Bannister. He had to confess that for many years his wife thought he had run four miles in one minute, and he had to explain to her that he had run only one mile in four minutes.

The issue of grade inflation is certainly not unknown to either the Government or universities. There are many published examples of the results of awarded degrees showing a marked increase in recent years. For instance, 27% of all graduates last year obtained a first-class degree, up from 16% a few years ago. There has been a big increase in the percentage of students obtaining upper degrees. One quite well-known university seems to pride itself that 50% of its graduates get first-class degrees. Standards are vital, not just for the universities but for wider society and our place in the world. Of course, students and their families are frightfully keen, but employers also want to know that the degrees potential employees hold are of value and the appropriate standard.

The position is far from being all bad. As the Minister said, four of our universities are among the 10 best in the world. Many universities are of a high standard, but some, if only a few, are letting standards down and that is of great concern. The previous Secretary of State called for an end to grade inflation and said that,

“the OfS should directly challenge institutions where they find clear evidence”,

of it. The Economic Affairs Select Committee of this House, which I had the honour of chairing some years ago, said in a recent report that it was,

“concerned that the replacement of nearly all grant funding by tuition fees, coupled with the removal of the cap on student numbers, has incentivised universities to attract prospective students onto full-time undergraduate degrees”,

when perhaps they should not be. It went to say:

“This may also explain the striking increase in grade inflation”.

Professor Buckingham, president of Universities UK and an outstanding vice-chancellor of the university of which I used to be chancellor, is clear that there is a problem. She said in her presidential address that universities are concerned to protect the value of their degrees and must take action to grip the issue of grade inflation. The consensus is clear that the increase in first and upper second-class degrees cannot be attributed entirely to students’ higher academic performance but is, in the eyes of some, a doubtful means of reputational enhancement.

I was going to say that the response of the Government to all this is not as adequate as it ought to be but, like the US cavalry, help came at the last minute. Four days before the Queen’s Speech, Universities UK issued a substantial initiative with comprehensive proposals to protect the value of degrees and to achieve transparent, consistent and fair academic values. If this is followed through, it is a very sensible way forward, so I very much welcome the initiative and look forward to being kept fully informed of its progress. It does not let the Government off the hook, but I expect the Government to keep a very watchful eye on it.