A first-class degree is still regarded as a mark of academic distinction. But new government figures show that the chance of gaining a first depends as much on the university you go to as it does on intelligence and diligence during studies.
A league table of degrees at Britain's top universities shows that students attending Imperial College London, Oxford and Cambridge have twice the chance of gaining a first than those at Glasgow, Birmingham or Newcastle upon Tyne.
While 11 per cent of students left Birmingham with a first last year, 23 per cent of new Oxford graduates gained first-class honours.
The league table, released by Lord Adonis, the education minister, will enable students to shop around for universities that tend to award top grades.
At Imperial College London 25 per cent of students gained a first last year. At nearby King's College London, 13 per cent were awarded the top degree, while 20 per cent of Warwick University students gained a first - compared with 10 per cent at Newcastle.
At Glasgow 11 per cent of undergraduates gained a first in 2003-04, compared with 9 per cent the previous year. In contrast, of the 3,695 graduates at Cambridge, 22 per cent gained a first.
Politicians expressed concern about the "inflation" of degrees, pointing out that gaining a first 20 years ago was rare whereas a quarter of students at some universities leave with a first today.
"There are many more firsts being given today than many years ago," said Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, the Liberal Democrat peer. "When I graduated from Oxford in 1968 about 14 per cent got a first. Now it is 22.7 per cent. A 2:2 is now almost a badge of shame and a third is extinct."
In addition, about half of students attending Russell Group universities gain an upper second. At Nottingham, 58 per cent gained an upper second last year alongside 63 per cent at Oxford. At the London School of Economics, 56 per cent left with a 2:1.
The Department for Education denied that the standard of degrees had been lowered and said that the Government was committed to maintaining Britain's "reputation for excellence". "Higher education institutions are responsible for assuring the quality and standards of their own provision. However, a number of national measures are in place ... to safeguard the public interest in sound quality and standards in higher education," a spokesman said.
"The standards of degrees awarded by higher education institutions are subject to independent review by the Quality Assurance Agency and external examiners. QAA reviews over the last eight years have consistently indicated that quality and standards are being maintained."
Honours List: The first-class degree guide
Percentage gaining first-class degrees (top five and bottom five)
Imperial College 25%
London School of Economics 19%
King's College London 13%
Newcastle 10%Reuse content