Students awarded first class degrees at record high despite crackdown on grade inflation

Employers look at graduates’ extra-curricular achievements more following grading concerns

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 16 January 2020 17:13 GMT
Watchdogs fear grade inflation could harm the reputation of British universities
Watchdogs fear grade inflation could harm the reputation of British universities (Getty)

More than one in four university graduates are still being awarded first class degrees despite a crackdown on grade inflation.

A record number of students, 28.4 per cent, were given a top degree last year – double the 14 per cent who gained a first a decade ago, Higher Education Statistics Agency data revealed.

The figures come after ministers warned that grade inflation could make degrees worth less to businesses and students and endanger the world-class reputation of British universities.

Employers now say they are increasingly having to look at graduates’ extra-curricular achievements, rather than just their degree results, to differentiate between candidates amid concerns about the trend.

The number of people who graduated with a first class degree last year still rose slightly – by 0.6 percentage points – despite pressure from the government and a commitment from UK universities to review the practice.

And nearly half (48 per cent) of students graduated with a 2.1 last year (2018-19), the figures show.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said the record levels of first and upper second honour degrees being awarded is “undermining” the sector’s gold-standard reputation around the world.

He added that every student could be given a first class degree in 38 years time if grade inflation continued at its present rate. “We can’t do that because it will undermine our international reputation, our international standing and universities’ ability to compete on the global stage,” he said.

Mr Williamson is calling for action to “end artificial grade inflation for good”. He added: “We are not going to continue to tolerate that continuous drift of grade inflation. We want to give both students, but also the whole sector, the confidence of what grades mean.”

Joe Fitzsimons, the head of education and skills policy at the Institute of Directors (IoD), told The Independent: “It’s crucial that degrees have credibility in the eyes of employers, and the government is right to scrutinise the growth in top grades.

“Business leaders have increasingly looked at extra-curricular achievements to differentiate between graduates, and grade inflation may have contributed to this trend.”

He added that the rise in top grades could also have stemmed from more students working harder.

But the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, said the latest figures showed that the rapid increase in the proportion of students being awarded a first class degree has now stalled.

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the OfS, said: “This arrests a long-term trend, with significant year-on-year increases having been seen since 2011.

“Previous analysis from the OfS found evidence of unexplained increases in the rates of first class degrees at 94 per cent of universities.”

Ms Dandridge said the watchdog is analysing the data, looking at the proportion of firsts that cannot be explained by factors such as university entry grades or the make-up of a student body.

She added: “Grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in higher education for students, graduates and employers alike. We will continue to seek action to address these issues, both across the higher education sector as a whole and, should it be necessary, at individual universities. This will help ensure that everyone can be confident in the value of degrees which students work so hard to achieve.”

A sector-wide review has been launched by British universities following concerns about the trend.

A spokesperson for Universities UK, the organisation representing vice-chancellors, said: “UK universities are committed to ensuring transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees, as shown by their overwhelming support for collective action to ensure that students – past, present and future – get the qualifications they deserve and can take pride in their achievements.”

A statement of intent published last year set out the steps institutions would be taking to ensure systems for awarding degrees are transparent and fair. UUK will be reviewing progress on this.

They added: “In this debate, we should not overlook the evidence that students are working harder and improvements in teaching and investment in academic support and widening participation initiatives are also leading to legitimate grade improvement.”

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