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Number of architecture students getting first-class degrees soars

Graduates
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Academics and students have warned of the pressures on universities to improve grades, as figures show a sharp rise in graduates receiving first-class degrees in architecture and related subjects

AJ analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that the proportion of students on architecture, building and planning courses receiving highly sought after firsts had more than doubled in less than a decade.

Just 10.8 per cent of degrees in these subjects resulted in first-class honours in 2007/8 compared with 24 per cent in 2016/17, the figures show.

The findings come hot on the heels of a warning by the Office for Students that universities must act against unexplained grade inflation. It has threatened to fine the worst offenders. The higher education watchdog analysed 148 providers and found that more than half showed a statistically significant unexplained increase in first degrees in 2016/17 relative to both the wider sector and their own level six years earlier.

While the AJ’s analysis of HESA data did not use the same modelling methods as the Office for Students, the steep rise in firsts over the past 10 years has rung alarm bells in the sector.

Student member on RIBA’s National Council Simeon Shtebunaev said: ‘My personal opinion is that the apparent inflation of grades is largely driven by the transformation of the educational sector into a fully fledged market operating by competitive rules.

‘The problem is one of economies and universities acting as businesses, trying to attract customers and being judged on performance indicators, one of which is the level of degrees awarded.

‘As long as university ranking tables are not regulated, and the government policies persist of treating higher education as an extension of the economy, I am afraid that there are no incentives to do otherwise.’

There is enormous pressure to keep the customer happy

RIBA director of practice David Gloster said: ‘As with all higher education provision in the UK, architecture courses are under enormous pressure to improve degree grades, student retention and progression. As such, the increase in first-class degree grades is perhaps unsurprising.

‘The league tables should not be seen as a wholly reliable guide to the excellence of schools of architecture as there will be many factors at play: the demographics of a cohort and the school’s active commitment to diversity and inclusivity for example. Plus there may be a reluctance to award third-class degrees to protect a university’s standing.’

Harriet Harriss, reader in architectural education at the Royal College of Art, said ‘unscrupulous’ behaviour had been encouraged by ‘commercialisation of higher education’.

First degree qualifications obtained in architecture, building and planning by class of first degree 2007/08 to 2016/17 - source Higher Education Statistics Agency

Academic Year

First class honours

Upper second class honours

Lower second class honours

Third class honours/Pass

Unclassified

Total

2016/17

1,840

3,470

1,670

355

325

7,665

2015/16

1,750

3,550

1,710

455

365

7,835

2014/15

1,730

3,550

1,990

475

450

8,195

2013/14

1,775

4,220

2,455

555

435

9,435

2012/13

1,700

4,705

2,510

695

430

10,040

2011/12

1,660

4,730

2,885

775

555

10,600

2010/11

1,450

4,805

3,070

870

540

10,735

2009/10

1,275

4,595

3,095

855

570

10,385

2008/09

1,065

3,885

2,610

760

585

8,905

2007/08

935

3,620

2,745

800

555

8,655

‘When faced with the substantial institutional costs of responding to the increasing number of student appeals from unhappy customers, there is enormous pressure to either to concede or avoid such a situation altogether by keeping the customer happy,’ she said.

However, Harriss added that teaching standards had improved since mandatory qualifications were introduced for certain levels, and that students were working harder because of the higher costs of attaining a degree.

‘Architecture schools have a degree of immunity against degree inflation due to RIBA accreditation, which ensures that the curriculum continues to serve the profession and that standards are maintained,’ she said.

Dave Madden, director at recruitment firm Mustard Jobs, agreed that more students were highly focused on their degree in the current climate than at some times during the past. He said technology and better teaching standards had made it easier to meet high standards.

‘Most of the clients we work with aren’t overly worried about the level of the degree achieved as by the time they are talking to us an amount of experience and reference is involved in the selection process, as well as the untestable aspects of hiring which are personality, charisma and culture fit,’ he added.

Mustard Jobs senior recruitment consultant for architecture Joe Bungey added: ‘In three and a half years, I can probably count on one hand the amount of times that degree grade has been a factor in deciding whether or not to offer a job to someone or even to interview.’

Separate research across all subjects by the Office for Students found that the proportion of students attaining first-class degrees had soared from 16 per cent in 2010/11 to 27 per cent six years later. The percentage of upper-second degrees remained the same at 51 per cent.

‘It is essential that all providers take steps to curb inappropriate increases in the awarding of first-class and upper-second-class degrees,’ said the watchdog.

It’s essential all providers take steps to curb inappropriate increases

‘Where providers do not take sufficient action to address this issue, we may use the full range of our regulatory powers to intervene.’

Two universities found to have relatively high levels of unexplained grade inflation by the Office for Students defended their records.

A spokesperson for the University of Greenwich said: ’Better teaching and better students leads to better results, and we will continue to invest in both our students and our academic staff. The OfS report is a useful addition to the debate surrounding grade improvement and we will continue to monitor this and work with the OfS and Universities UK.’

The University of Huddersfield, meanwhile, said it had won a number of awards for the quality of its teaching and broader staff. 

‘This, combined with our focus on ensuring as many students as possible take up the option of a work placement, such that they do a four-year rather than a three-year degree, means that our employability figures are some of the best in the country,’ it said. ‘There have been no changes to our assessment algorithms during this period.’

Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis  said: ‘Universities are already taking steps to tackle grade inflation. The report we recently published outlines a number of measures to protect the value of qualifications over time that are currently being consulted on by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment. It is essential that the public has full confidence in the value of a degree.’

Comment

Dan Hajjar, managing principal at HOK’s London studio

We certainly do not see the apparent rise of first-class degrees as a cause for concern. Given the changes to syllabuses, increase in co-op degrees and greater weighting towards real work experience, it is very difficult to make a like-for-like comparison between 2008 and 2017. 

More importantly, I think the way the profession identifies talent has changed and a person’s degree class is no longer the primary determining factor. Today’s students have far greater workplace experience, meaning that practices can observe their thought processes and technical skills, and crucially, their eagerness to learn and accept responsibility alongside their academic records. This more holistic approach means the graduates employed today are quicker to integrate and hit the ground running, which can only be a good thing.’ 

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