Calls begin for an A-level-style "starred first-class degree"

Record numbers of students left university with a first-class degree last summer, official figures showed yesterday, prompting claims of grade inflation.

Almost one in five students graduated with a first-class honours degree (18.4 per cent) while more than two thirds obtained at least a 2:1 pass.

The rise confirms a trend of the past two decades which has seen the number of first-class degree holders treble from just over 20,000 in 1999 to last summer's figure of 69,695 - itself a rise of 8,000 students on the previous summer.

it is also fuelling fresh concern over grade inflation with one prominent academic accusing universities of "intellectual dishonesty" over the awarding of degrees.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, said it was time to consider the introduction of a "starred-first" degree on top of the present structure.

He said the introduction of university league tables had "created an incentive for intellectual dishonesty".

"The rise is brought about by the need for universities to present the best possible picture of applicants through league tables," he added.

"The universities will say it is a reflection of students getting brighter and A-level grades going up. But, as Ofqual (the exams regulator) pointed out, there has been lots of grade inflation at A-level and it would seem this is now filtering through to universities. It means degrees aren't distinguishing between students.

"I don't think we ought to abandon the classification system but we may need to look at introducing a starred-first on top."

Meanwhile, it emerged that three quarters of the top graduate recruiters were now insisting on a 2:1 degree pass as the minimum requirement for a job.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers - the graduate recruitment experts, said:  "Three-quarters of Britain's top 100 employers now say that a graduate needs at least a 2:1 to join their graduate recruitment programmes."

He said the figures were likely to fuel "the age old debate about are we getting smarter or are qualifications getting easier".

However, he added: "From an employers' point of view, university degree qualifications can be a good indication of someone's academic ability but when students apply for a graduate job it is now about one fifth of the equation that recruiters are looking for.

"They're also looking at the work experience people have had and the business and personal skills they've built up whilst at university."

Vice-chancellors' representatives described the current degree system as a "blunt instrument" for determining the abilities of students.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK - the body which represents vice-chancellors, said trials were currently under way to introduce a new "Higher Education Achievement Report", which would list the range of skills a student had acquired at university.

Yesterday's figures also showed a drop in the number of new international students coming to the UK to study for the first time in a decade - they were down by almost 2,000 to 171, 910. The biggest fall was from India where there were 25 per cent fewer recruits this year - largely as a result of controversy over new visa restrictions.

"Higher education is something this country does well and we need to maintain our proud global reputation," said Sally hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union.

"Other countries are investing heavily in their universities and we would be foolish and naive to presume we would automatically remain a top choice for international students.

"At a time when other countries are doing their best to market themselves positively to international students we have a government that is sending out a worrying message that we don't welcome foreigners.

"The Government needs to recognise that a tough line on immigration might play well to certain parts of the domestic audience but it does nothing for our international reputation."

Ms Dandridge said the drop in registrations from India was "of concern" but added that the climate was improving following a visit by Prime minister David Cameron last year during which he stressed there was no cap on the numbers who could be admitted to UK universities.