Nearly half of first-class degrees awarded by universities ‘unexplained’

Nearly half of first-class degrees awarded by universities last year were "unexplained", according to figures published by the education watchdog.

Students entering university with grades below DDD were almost four times as likely to receive a first in 2018/19 compared with 2010/11, the report by the Office for Students (OfS) also reveals.

The proportion of graduates who attained top degrees rose from 15.7 per cent to 29.5 per cent in the same period, amounting to an 88 per cent increase, according to the OfS.

However, it was not immediately clear why almost half (14.3 percentage points) of graduates in the latest figure achieved a first, prompting concerns about grade inflation.

Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the 147 providers included in the analysis saw "unexplained" increases in first-class degrees between 2017/18 and 2018/19, according to the report.

Some institutions gave firsts to more than 40 per cent of graduating students in 2018-19, including Imperial College London and University College London (UCL), according to the analysis. 

Anglia Ruskin, Northumbria, Bradford, Kingston, Central Lancashire and Wolverhampton were among the universities which experienced the biggest rises in first-class degree attainment in the last eight years.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: "This data shows that the increase in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in 2018-19 has slowed compared to previous years, with a small increase from last year in the percentage of first-class degrees which cannot be explained by other factors.

"While this may indicate that the brakes have been applied, it is clear that grade inflation remains a significant and pressing issue in English higher education.

"Unexplained grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in higher education, and devaluing the hard work of students. Degrees must stand the test of time, which is why the OfS will continue to address this issue at both a sector-wide and individual university level.

"Where we have concerns about unexplained grade inflation at any particular university or college, we are prepared to intervene to protect the integrity of the degree awarding system for all students."

The proportion of students being awarded first-class degrees has increased from 34,885 (15.7%) to 77,110 (29.5%). Much of the increase cannot be explained by factors that may affect attainment, the report said. These factors include the university, how old the graduate is and what subject they are studying.

Ministers and the higher education watchdog have repeatedly called on universities to clamp down on grade inflation.

Although the number of students who achieved below DDD in their A-levels has fallen between 2010/11 and 2018/19 (from 4,505 to 3,140), the proportion who have gone on to achieve firsts has increased from 5.3 per cent to 20.2 per cent (239 to 634 students respectively).

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: "It is essential that degree classifications are meaningful for students and employers, and universities are taking action to improve transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees.

"In July 2020 universities across the UK agreed a new set of principles for degree algorithm design, having overwhelmingly supported a sector-wide statement of intent on tackling grade inflation in May 2019.

"We will be publishing a review of progress later this year exploring whether further action is needed."

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