Grade Inflation: Scotland beginning to lead the way in reforming entry to Higher Education


In Scotland, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle over plans by the SNP to force universities to lower the entrance grades for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Some have suggested this policy will negatively impact more socioeconomically advantaged students, others have suggested that it will lower the quality of standards on courses and institutions.

People should understand that the grades requested by universities for entry on to their degree programs are not dictated by the academic demands of the programs but have become inflated by the practical need to filter the increased numbers of applicants. A course that demands AAB from its applicants does not necessarily academically need applicants who are AAB. Firstly, there is no such thing as an AAB applicant, it is an arbitrary and almost meaningless notion. The AAB that a student may have achieved will tell a university very little about that student’s potential for success on their course. AAB is a line in the sand, not an indication of a student’s potential.

It is fair to say that it could be argued that students who achieve A*A*A* have, by whatever means, learned to achieve A*A*A* in exams. The skill/capability/learning to achieve A*A*A* may offer that student a greater hindrance to their learning in Higher Education than the skill/capability/learning of a student who achieved CCC, why? It is possible that a student whose learning was less focused on gaming the grade system and more focused on actually learning a subject area may not achieve the specialized and narrow knowledge base of the A*A*A* student but may have, instead, gained a broader foundation of knowledge and, crucially, subject understanding. That is not to say a minority of students could not achieve both but it is to say that not all A*A*A* will have achieved both and that success at study at the Higher Education level benefits far more from a broad foundation of knowledge aligned with subject understanding AND, crucially, the familiarity with learning in that context.

Grades in Education have become extensions of the marketisation of Education. Grades that should be one form of indication of a student’s potential have become a measure of success of teaching and, subsequently, a stick with which to beat schools into a state of being a marketised product vendor. If grades were simply indicators of a student’s potential then they would be shared internally only, not used in league tables to compare schools and to force schools into pseudo-competition. Thanks to the high stakes associated with school grade achievement, the focus of grades has become about the grades themselves, not the learning that should accompany them.

There are many factors which can affect a student’s grade acquirement and cumulative advantage tops the list. Students who come from homes that offer socioeconomic advantages achieve higher grades. That is not a reflection of a student’s potential but a reflection of generational success also linked to cumulative advantage. The resilience that a disadvantaged student may need to develop to achieve CCC would potentially serve them far better in Higher Education than the potential gaming required to achieve A*A*A*.

Instead of externalising grades it would be far more useful if students took entrance exams for university that examined students on skills/capabilities relevant to potential success in Higher Education, remembering that a crucial role of Higher Education is the personal development of an individual, not just the academic. Creating a system for entry to Higher Education that allows for a diverse intake will strengthen Higher Education, its community relevance and its outputs, in the way that narrowing entry weakens it.

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