The proportion of firsts handed out by UK universities has soared, resulting with a third of institutions now grading at least one in four degrees with top honours, according to the Press Association analysis of official data.
In some cases, the proportion has more than doubled in five years, resulting in almost all universities and colleges giving out a higher proportion of firsts than they were in 2010-11.
These findings are likely to spark the long-running debate about grade inflation, and whether the degree classification system should be overhauled.
The figures, for the academic years 2010-11 and 2015-16, are based on 148 universities and colleges for which there is comparable data. Official Statistics show that 24% of students graduated with a first last year.
The director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Nick Hillman said, “some rise is not unreasonable, given that schools have got better and some universities have increase their entry tariffs, so they’re getting better quality students.”
Yet, Hillman also suggests the impact of universities league tables could be fuelling grade inflation. Many institutions now employ staff to specifically compare their results and data with others.
“There are also issues with the external examination system used by many universities, which sees academics from other institutions asked to assess students’ work against a university’s requirements,” added Mr Hillman.
“There are people who think the system isn’t as robust as it might be,” Mr Hillman said. “It can all be a bit cosy, you ask someone you know to be an external examiner.” Yet again, the ultimate power to decide a student’s grade remains in the hands of the institution itself.
He continued by suggesting the rise in firsts could be an issue for the new Office for Students to examine. A spokeswoman for vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said degree classifications are a matter for individual institutions.
“Every one of our universities is unique, with a different subject mix, student body, faculties and departments and, of course, different course curricula and content, which makes comparison difficult, but this diversity is valued by students and staff and this is a strength of the UK sector,” she said.
“The sector has changed significantly since 2010, with universities putting more emphasis on the quality of teaching and investing in learning support, alongside the fact that with higher fees, students may be working harder to achieve higher grades.”