The proportion of students getting first-class degrees is rising

The proportion of students graduating with firsts has increased significantly in England over the past eight years, with the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, often not being able to explain some of these results.

The latest figures from the Office for Students (Ofs), based on the eight-year period from 2010-11 to 2018-19, show that four out of five graduates currently obtain a first or a 2:1, which amounts to a proportional increase of 90%.

While the rate of grade inflation seems to have slowed in the last year, the overall trend has prompted the Ofs to acknowledge the urgency of this issue, with the Department of Education calling for action to defend the UK’s ‘world-class reputation for higher education’.

The Ofs analysis has highlighted that when taking into consideration the whole of England, the increase in firsts is still unexplained for approximately 73% of universities, even after considering such factors as improved learning and teaching strategies.

Among the institutions with a significant proportion of first-class degrees are the likes of Imperial College London and University College London, with top grades being awarded to 54.7% and 40% of their students, respectively; significant increases have also been found at Anglia Ruskin University, Bradford and Kingston.

Last year, sector-representative bodies for higher education, including the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) and Universities UK (UUK), published a statement of intent in order to address concerns about grade inflation.

The statement included a new voluntary code for degree classifications, designed to ensure the transparency and
consistency of awarding practices. Under this framework, in particular, universities are to clarify the criteria used to award different grades, as well as publicly disclose the proportion of students in each degree class.

The initiative received sector-wide support, with university leaders seeing it as a way to reassure both students and employers that the higher proportion of top grades does in fact reflect improvements in teaching and in student performance. In addition, earlier this year, a new set of principles was agreed on targeting degree algorithms, which are the method through which degree classifications are calculated.

It is yet to be seen what will be the impact of the latest data from the Office for Students, especially with regard to those statistically significant increases of first-class degrees that are still unexplained. Universities UK, a group comprising 140 institutions across the country, have said that a review of progress will be published later this year.

Meanwhile, the latest press release on their website mentions the development of a charter which will focus on both ‘demonstrating the sector’s commitment to consistency and transparency’ and ‘highlighting best practice’. It also says that, in the future, universities will ‘consider options for external assurance or independent review to make their processes stronger’.

According to Nicola Dandridge, the Ofs Chief Executive, grade inflation is a matter of public confidence in the higher education system, and more active intervention may be necessary to avoid ‘devaluing the hard work of students’.

Photo credit: UOB