Grade inflation at English universities has fallen for the first time in a decade, new analysis suggests.
Across 144 institutions, 32.8% of students were awarded a first class degree in 2021/22, a drop of 4.6% on the year before when it stood at 37.4%.
It marks the first time that the Office for Students (OfS), which gathered the data, has observed a fall in the number of first class degrees since 2010/11 and comes after universities in England pledged last July to reverse degree inflation.
But the number of first class degrees was still more than double the figure at 2010/11, when they stood at 15.4%, and have not dropped to pre-pandemic levels.
The data, analysed by the PA news agency, showed that while the overall number of first class degrees had fallen, half of them remained unexplained – a decline of 4.8% on the year before.
The OfS defines “unexplained” degrees as those which cannot be put down to factors such as students’ entry qualifications or subjects of study.
Any impact on the awarding of degrees made in response to the pandemic has also been classified as “unexplained”.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, welcomed the progress in tackling grade inflation but said more needed to be done.
She said: “We’re not out of the woods yet as half of first class degrees cannot be explained by students’ entry qualifications or the subject of study.
“Inflation of grades that does not reflect actual student achievement is bad for students, graduates and employers, and risks undermining the reputation of English higher education in the UK and beyond.
“We are encouraged to see a reduction in the proportion of unexplained top grades, but universities and colleges know that they need to continue to take the steps necessary to protect the value of their qualifications, now and over time.
“We recognise there are likely to be a range of factors – including improved teaching – that could lead to an increase in the number of firsts awarded.
“But the sustained increase in unexplained firsts and upper second-class degrees since 2010/11 continues to cause us concern.
“Students, graduates and employers must have confidence that degrees awarded represent a reliable assessment of achievement, with qualifications remaining credible throughout a student’s career.”
Oxford University recorded the lowest level of grade inflation for first class degrees over the past decade.
In 2010/11, 28.5% of students attending the university obtained a first class degree, growing to 36.4% in 2021/22.
The jump of 7.9 percentage points is the smallest among all the England-based universities in the Russell Group, which comprises some of the most prestigious higher education organisations in the country.
Queen Mary University of London has seen the biggest rise across the decade, from 15.4% to 45.8%, followed by the University of Leeds, which was up from 17.6% to 47.5%.
UCL had the highest proportion of firsts awarded in 2021/22, totalling 52%, while University of Newcastle had the lowest at 32.2%.