Thousands more students are graduating with a first-class degree than five years ago, with one in six now gaining top honours, official figures show.
The numbers of graduates securing an upper-second has also risen, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
The figures show that 53,215 students left university with a first last summer (2010/11), compared to 36,645 in 2006/07 - a 45% increase.
In 2009/10, 46,825 students graduated with a first, meaning that the numbers gaining top honours rose by 14% in one year alone.
In total, 15.5% of students who left university in 2010/11 with a degree received a first, the statistics show, compared to 14.4% in 2009/10 and 12.6% in 2006/07.
The number of students graduating from university with a degree overall was higher last year than five years ago.
HESA's figures also show that 166,100 students graduated with an upper-second last summer - up 6% from 2009/10 and a rise of 19% on 2006/07, when 138,745 people achieved this grade.
Overall, 64% of graduates left university with a first or a 2:1 last year, the statistics show, compared to 60% in 2006/07.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK said: "As in previous years, the proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded has increased marginally. But A-level performance has also improved in recent years, so it is unsurprising that degree results would also show an improvement.
"However, it has been clear for some time that the current degree classification system is a blunt instrument for assessing achievement, hence Universities UK's support for the ongoing trialling of the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear).
"The aim of the Hear is to provide a more detailed account of what a student has actually achieved during their studies, rather than just a one-off degree classification. A final report on the trial is due later this year."
Two-thirds (66%) of women achieved a first or a 2:1 last year, compared with 61% of men, the figures show.
Today's statistics also show a 1% drop in UK students at UK universities, while overseas students from outside the EU rose by 6%, and the number of EU students rose by 4%.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the university think-tank million+, said: "At a time of economic difficulty and rising unemployment, the decrease in students enrolling at university is disappointing.
"Demand for places reached record levels. Rather than threatening to fine universities if they exceeded their student numbers, the Government should have funded more places."