New! DATA BLOG: Grade inflation?

Earlier this month, the OfS published a new release of degree classification data, concluding that the growing proportion of the first and upper second class degrees awarded cannot be fully explained by factors linked with degree attainment. Specifically, the new analysis finds that in 2017-18, 13.9 percentage points’ worth of first-class degree attainment is unexplained by changes in the graduate population since 2010-11, an increase of 2.4 percentage points from the unexplained attainment in 2016-17. So we have it – grade inflation.

So, we’ve fished some unfiltered HESA data out of our archives, updated it, and looked at the distributions between first, second and third-class honours in engineering. And it seems that engineering paints a very different (worse?) picture than the sector as a whole. We award a notably higher proportion of firsts and, at a glance, a commensurately lower proportion of 2nd class honours. The proportion of 3rd class honours/pass awarded has come into line with the all subjects over recent years. It varies by engineering discipline, but nowhere is the proportion of firsts lower than for all subjects.

You might think, then, that high-level degree awards in engineering (firsts plus upper-class seconds) were nothing to write home about. But in 2016/17, at 77.3%, the proportion of high-level degree awards in engineering was one percentage point higher than for all subjects (and the difference has fluctuated around the one percent mark for the past ten years).

A simplified index plot, where 1 (the central y axis) represents all subjects, shows the propensity of a first in engineering is consistently greater than for all subjects (where the longer the bar, the greater the over-representation). The over-representation of firsts in engineering has shown a notable reduction over the past ten years and, at 1.4, was at its lowest yet in 2017/18. The overrepresentation of third-class honours in engineering visible from 2007/08 to 2015/15 has now been eliminated. You can see from this analysis that the over-representation of firsts is in fact greater than the combined under-representation of 2:1s and 2:2s.

So, what does this tell us? That the rise in higher degree classifications doesn’t apply to engineering? The number of high-level degrees in engineering has increased from 10,180 in 2007/8 to 18,690 in 2017/8, an increase of 83.6%. Proportionally, this has risen from 62.7% of all degree awards in engineering to 77.3%. That’s just marginally less proportional growth than the 14.9 percentage point difference for all subjects. But we are making progress.

Here’s the rub, who’s to say that rises in high-level degree classifications (which, sector-wide, cannot be explained by the data readily available – not my data) is necessarily a problem per se, or that is signals grade inflation? There are many reasons – not accounted for in the OfS statistical models – for degree outcome uplift, not least the massive expansion of student numbers in the last 20 years (leading to a less socially constrained pool of students); greater awareness of student support needs; the increased cost of higher education to students; more incentivised and focused students; and improved teaching in both schools and universities. Further, there is evidence that market forces; course enrolments; progression rules (e.g. progression from BEng to MEng requires achievement of marks for the first two or three years of study suggesting a minimum 2:1 standard, and therefore likely transfer of the best students away from the BEng); and the marking processes adopted by different subject areas impacts the proportion of upper degrees between subjects.

The evidence of improvement in teaching (and the development of pedagogy in UK universities) is much stronger than the evidence for grade inflation. As a discipline, this is what we must celebrate. Higher education (HE) is the gold standard in the delivery of engineering skills in the UK and has a strong international standing and reputation.

Let’s face it, the assumption that institutions need to account for grade inflation rather than educational improvement is perverse. Instead, let’s talk about and encourage innovation in teaching, learning and assessment, precisely what our New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education initiative (in partnership with the IET) aims to do. Earlier this year we launched six case study examples for each of the six new approaches, evidencing that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and we now want other institutions who have been inspired to come up with new approaches of their own to showcase their work at a New Approaches conference at the IET in November. More details will be circulated shortly.

Attribution: EPC analysis of HESA Student Qualifiers Full Person Equivalent (FPE) using Heidi Plus Online Analytics service.

DATA BLOG: Will this year’s undergraduate engineering intake really be bad news?

An interim assessment of placed UCAS applicants for this autumn highlights that engineering follows a sector-wide slide in placed applicants overall but bucks a sector increase in applicants placed from the EU and a bumper crop of placed applicants from overseas.

Of course, this is only part of the story – in so far as it is limited to undergraduate unconditional firms through UCAS, is a snapshot taken quite a while before movement is complete, and will not translate directly to enrolments – but the findings highlight the importance of getting a better picture of actual enrolments as early as possible. The only way to get an early look at the patterns of actual enrolment is through the EPC’s engineering enrolments survey, and the more universities participate, the clearer the picture will be. Never has this early insight been so critical.

UCAS data highlights

Applicants placed on undergraduate engineering courses through UCAS looks set to fall for the second year running. The latest UCAS data, which gives the 2018 entry position 28 days after A level results, shows that the number of applicants accepted to engineering through UCAS has fallen below 28,000 at this point in the cycle for the first time since 2014.

A look at the national context across all subjects shows that engineering is following the overall trend.

But for pockets of undergraduates, is the outlook worse for engineering? For those from England, the growth between 2009 and 2016 was certainly stronger in Engineering, and the decline is marginally less. This is positive news and represents a significant slice of the market. However, for placed applicants from the remaining UK administrations engineering appears to fare worse than the sector as a whole. And while the sector saw growth in placed applicants from the EU and overseas (as well as those from Scotland) between 2017 and 2018, engineering did not.

Of course, this interim assessment of the 2018 cycle isn’t yet the full UCAS picture, and I am reminded that a count of unconditional firm UCAS applicants doesn’t translate to the bums on seats at enrolment (or even full admissions data).

It is not yet possible to say which engineering disciplines have been hardest hit in UCAS terms as data at engineering discipline level won’t be available until late 2018.

However, the findings of the EPC Engineering Enrolment Survey will be launched on 14th November at the annual Recruitment and Admissions Forum which will be held this year at Sheffield Hallam University. The preview of enrolment patterns to engineering courses at UK universities is critical benchmarking data, valuable for any staff with an interest in recruitment or admissions for engineering departments. Our survey gives us all a first glance at engineering enrolments long before official HESA data becomes available. You can complete this year’s survey via the EPC website.

The Forum also welcomes Helen Thorne, UCAS’ Director of External relations, who promises to share unprecedented insight into undergraduate engineering trends and applicant behaviours. You can book your place here.

The full data on which this analysis is based is available to download from the UCAS website.

DATA BLOG: UCAS Engineering applications down but applications from women up

UCAS’ latest application data released today gives us a first glimpse into this Autumn’s enrolments into HE (15 January deadline).

Applications to Engineering (totalling 144½ thousand) are down by 1.7% since the same time last year. This includes a decline in applications from the UK of 2.5%, not the increase in home grown talent required to reduce the skills shortage, ensure a home-grown skills pipeline, and deliver the Industrial Strategy.

This fall is both:

  • greater than overall decline in applications (-0.9%);
  • and only the second drop in Engineering applications at this point in the cycle in the last ten years; January 2012, when the introduction of tuition fees tangibly shook applications sector-wide, saw a 1.3% drop in Engineering applications.

The overall data shows there has been a rise in international applications including a 3% rise from the EU – which some have read as a rush to study here before Brexit. But, no rise for Engineering applications from within the EU (-1.7%).

Engineering applications from outside the EU are up, by 1.2% (from 26,520 to 26,850 applications). That said, non-EU international students applied for almost all the subject groups in greater numbers (there were almost 40% more applications to Computer science courses from non-EU students than there were last year, and 16% more applications to Biological sciences). 

But, it’s not all bad news. At 1 in 5 (or 19.1%) women are better represented in Engineering applications that at any point in the past 10 years. Progress, especially for those applying from England. This is also boosted by international applications, the EU in particular from where over ¼ of applications to Engineering are made by women.

I’ve downloaded the data available, so if you have any specific questions or want precise figures for your reports I’ll do my best to advise you. Please note only domicile and sex are available by subject in this set of data and bear in mind that I work part time!

UCAS’ analysis report can be found here

DATA BLOG: New year, new data? Can aging stats really help today’s strategies?

Last week, UCAS completed its suite of 2017 data when it published detailed stats for last autumn’s undergraduate admissions to the UK’s largest universities and colleges. But while the accepted applicant data reaches us only four or five months after the event, the applications were generally made around seven months earlier. So, as we enter the crucial months of the 2018 recruitment cycle, only now is UCAS data giving us a snapshot of what happened up to a year ago.

Then we have HESA data. The first release of HESA’s official student enrolment data for 2016/2017 also came this January. Now we have ‘new’ data relating to the previous year’s UCAS cohort; that is, those enrolling at our universities in Autumn 2016.

But while these figures may seem hopelessly out of date, the trends behind the numbers are still highly relevant to our work in the coming months. (And trust me, I know from experience how much work goes into collecting and collating both sets of outputs!)

Over the coming weeks I’ll be updating the HESA student data on the EPC website and sharing some of my favourite engineering soundbites with you.

For example, did you know that one-in-three Engineering and technology students in 2016/2017 were international (32.5%) with one-in-four coming from outside the EU (24.9%)? HESA has published an introduction to their student (and staff) data on their website highlighting an increase in the number of students in higher education, a decline in part-time students, and over a quarter of first degree graduates gaining a first.

And a reminder of the UCAS engineering trends for last year…

  • Most subject groups had a reduction in applications, with applications to Engineering holding their own of sorts by decreasing by just 1.6% in 2017.
  • Relatively speaking, it was a good year to be an Engineering applicant, as acceptances to Engineering fell by a relatively smaller 0.6%,
  • Overall, the odds of successfully applying to university are at their highest level for nine years.
  • Between 2008 and 2017, the proportional change in acceptances to Engineering makes for healthy reading.
  • Any surprises that nearly 5 men were accepted for every woman in Engineering (4.9:1)?

UCAS also publish data reports plus downloads on their website.