UK universities award more firsts than ever

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The concerning trend of ‘grade inflation’ has continued to rise, despite the Government’s commitment to a crackdown. Last year, 28.4 per cent, were given a first-class degree, double the 14 per cent who gained a first ten years ago, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. A sector-wide review has been launched by British universities following concerns about the trend.

Ministers have warned that grade inflation could make degrees worthless to businesses and students, devaluing a university education; it could also endanger the world-class reputation of British universities, and risk foreign graduates from Europe and North America out competing British graduates. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, former Secretary of State for Defence until his dismissal over leaking, has said the record levels of first and upper second honour degrees being awarded is “undermining” the sector’s gold-standard reputation around the world. 

The Head of Education and Skills Policy at the Institute of Directors, Joe Fitzsimons said: “It’s crucial that degrees have credibility in the eyes of employers, and the government is right to scrutinise the growth in top grades. Business leaders have increasingly looked at extra-curricular achievements to differentiate between graduates, and grade inflation may have contributed to this trend.”

Mr Williamson is calling for action to “end artificial grade inflation for good”. He described the continuous drift of grade inflation as damaging, and added: “We want to give both students, but also the whole sector, the confidence of what grades mean.”

However the rise in grade inflation last year was slight, rising only 0.6% from the year before, suggesting that the attempts being made to tackle grade inflation may be working. Nicola Dandridge of the Office for Students has said that the rapid increase of grade inflation since 2011 has ended. Dandridge commented: “This arrests a long-term trend, with significant year-on-year increases having been seen since 2011. Previous analysis from the Office of Students found evidence of unexplained increases in the rates of first-class degrees at 94 per cent of universities.”

As well as the number of firsts received, the latest figures from the Higher Education Agency revealed that 48% of students received an upper second degree, 19% lower second and 4% third class – with all of these being the same as the previous year.

Last modified: 10th February 2020

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