As I finalise the GuildHE response to the degree classification consultation by QAA, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment I have been struck by a key misunderstanding at the heart of the debate about “grade inflation”, grade improvement and the whole classification system.

For the higher education sector, students’ grades, whether a First, 2:1, 2:2, Third or Pass are a way of recognising the learning that students have achieved. However, for many employers, the grade is seen as a way of differentiating between different students. Two really quite different activities, and whilst not entirely mutually exclusive, can be very difficult to marry these two expectations.

GuildHE believes that education is about supporting people to achieve their potential through outstanding teaching and learning. The higher education sector has therefore developed a grading and classification system that is based on whether or not an individual achieves the criteria for course learning outcomes, which therefore means that the more people that meet these criteria the more people that will achieve a particular grade. In theory, it would be possible for all students to get a First if they are able to demonstrate advanced knowledge and understanding, cognitive, practical and transferable skills as well as the ability to critically reflect and demonstrate excellent problem-solving skills and the other requirements of getting a First.

For us, this is an important principle. We should recognise the learning of the individual, rather than placing quotas on student success through creating hierarchies depending on where a student is compared to their fellow students (known as “norm-referencing”). As a sector, we need to get better at articulating the importance and benefits of this criteria based approach.

This is not to say that we should not also respond to concerns about perceptions of lowering standards, but this should come from a robust evidence base of where standards have actually fallen. It is worth saying though that claims from employers about underqualified graduates, or wider public concerns of falling standards, would not have resonated and taken hold in the consciousness of the public if the higher education sector had a better evidence base for the impact that investments in teaching and learning were having, or improving school standards, or increasing student effort or any of the factors that could have impacted on improving student achievement. As a sector, we need to get better at demonstrating the evidence base for the improvements that are happening, and also having transparent and robust quality assurance processes that reassure people that these are genuine improvements.

Governing bodies of autonomous institutions take their responsibilities for maintaining standards seriously, and the recent increasing expectations on governing bodies provide a useful opportunity to step back and reflect on whether their oversight of academic quality and standards are as robust as we would expect it to be, something that the recent OfS registration process will have provided some reassurance about. Some of the proposals in the consultation – such as a national statement of intent and institution degree outcomes statements – will help provide both a more transparent set of processes and enable institutions to make more robust, evidence-based defences for their improving standards.

We must respond quickly and effectively where there are genuine cases of grade inflation, and things that could bring the sector into disrepute, but also we should not be shy about championing the benefits of a system that rewards students achievement.