1 in 7 gained first-class degrees in 2009

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The Independent Online

Record numbers of students gained first-class degrees last summer.

Figures released today show the percentage of graduates receiving a first-class degree rose to an all-time high of 14 per cent this summer - up one percentage point from the previous.

The statistics, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, also showed that nearly half of those who graduated (48 per cent) got an upper second.

The findings will fuel concerns of grade inflation expressed in a report by an all-party group of MPs last summer.

They were alarmed that the number of firsts awarded had risen from 19,470 to 41,150 in a decade. Yesterday’s figures take the number to 43,125.

The report, by MPs on the Commons Select Committee that monitors higher education, said the system for checking university standards was “out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced” and accused vice-chancellors of “defensive complacency” over the system.

The HESA report also showed there was a slight fall in the number of people graduated for the first time – from 334, 890 to 333,720. However,, this is likely just to be a blip as a result of students earlier this decade foregoing gap years in order to start courses early to escape top-up fees.

A shake-up of degree marking has been announced in the wake of the concerns. A review of the system concluded it was no longer “fit for purpose”.

As a result, a new certificate is being piloted to run alongside degree qualifications which will list a wider range of students’ achievements whilst at university.

The figures also showed a 7.7 per cent increase in student enrolments last year – a rise that is set to be repeated this year with more and more youngsters applying to higher education because of fears they will otherwise be jobless.

This comes in a year universities will be struggling to cope with budge cuts announced by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the university think-tank Million+, said: “Lord mandelson now has a straightforward choice to argue for the extra resources required to fund additional places in 2010 in the pre-election Budget or concede that the failure to fund universities will increase the call on the benefits budget of the Department of Work and Pensions, as people who would have studied for degrees are instead left to sign on because of a shortage of funded places.”