A bold move by a top Chinese university

Tsinghua University
An official statement by Tsinghua University

I have known a lot of Chinese universities, as well as many in other nations, that set implicit or explicit rules for the percentage of A grades in each exam. And I was too naive to believe that top universities like Tsinghua University (THU) also had similar practice, with a percentage as high as 30%.

Today I ran into this document by THU and got intrigued by this academic phenomenon and the debate about grade inflation. Indeed, globally, more and more people graduate with A grades or a first-class degree.

Credit to National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities

In America, average GPA has been rising.

Credit to Grade inflation – Wikiwand

In the UK, first-class degree has been on the rise too.

Honestly, we don’t know exactly what are the causes of the grade increase. I prefer to not use “grade inflation” to describe it because inflation sounds negative and induces moral judgment.

Some have argued that perhaps the increase in scores and GPA is because students are getting better intellectually and our education system has improved their teaching effectiveness. Others have also argued that grade increase should not cause panic, for after all, grade shouldn’t be important because learning assessment can take various approaches and it shouldn’t matter whether there are more A grades. That employers use grade to separate good students from other isn’t appropriate in the first place. Economy and industry aren’t the primary purpose of education, as much as many politician, business owner, and media people tend to force it.

Despite these arguments, it goes without saying that the policy at the university level to fixate a percentage of A grades like THU’s is debatable. First, within the university, it is best to give individual instructors the freedom to decide how they want to assess their students. If it seems to the instructor that no one in the class worked hard enough, then let him give no one A grades.

In addition, it might be fine if every institution agrees on a percentage and stick to it. But the fact is that there is no consensus and barely has any universities published their percentage. Then universities have the incentive to boost students’ grader so that they can gain competitive advantage in the labor market or academia. Students’ good record will make the university look good so they can obtain more funding too. And this is a classic prisoner’s dilemma, because those dare enough to inflate their students’ grades by just a little bit, provided other universities don’t follow, their students will have a bit more advantage. Of course other universities will follow and grades get higher and higher and higher.

When THU removed the policy, many students saw their grades lowered significantly. This causes problem for students who need a good grade to apply for master’s or PhD programs. As much as THU stresses its academic rigor, THU students’ relatively low grades will still enter the equation by which the admission officers calculate students’ overall scores. By contrast, students from ordinary schools can get higher grades with relative ease. Many THU students moaned.

It takes great courage for THU to make this long-due move and unilaterally quite the game of prisoner’s dilemma. I say to students of THU: don’t worry about your grades, worry about matching your audacity, rigor, and wisdom with your alma mater.

Tsinghua University
Full letter by THU

You can download the letter here.

Join the conversation

1 Comment

  1. That’s an insightful analysis. I think you give the answer to the question in the beginning (why the average grade improved) later in the text: the prisoner’s dilemma, which naturally leads to this outcome over time. Probably this will continue until the situation becomes too extreme, then there is a strong reform, and then the cycle repeats.

    I think the difference in average grades across different universities is not a big problem, because other institutions or employers know their ‘target’ universities and can take the differences into account.

    One thing I did not understand is why you think grades should not matter to an employer. Don’t you think they provide an indication of how intelligent and well-organised someone is?

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply