By Zoe Fripp
Official data shows that the percentage of graduates receiving first-class honours has risen by 44% in the last 5 years.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) released figures that show more than 1 in 4 graduates were awarded a first-class last year, compared to only 18% in 2012-2013.
The data released by HESA also showed that 75% of students graduated with a 2:1 last year, which has risen 68% compared to 2012-2013, the first academic year that increased tuition fees were introduced. The statistics have created concerns that degrees are becoming too easy, leading to qualifications having less value and employers finding it hard to differentiate between candidates.
A professor of education at the University of Buckingham, Alan Smithers, told the BBC that universities have every incentive to grant these grades compared to GCSEs and A Levels.
“They are free to award as many firsts as they like,” he said.
However, universities are warned that if they are found to be awarding higher grades in order to maintain high rankings, they may face regulatory action.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told the Telegraph that institutions suspected of doing this will be monitored and analysed, and if it is proven they could face being “publicly listed”, or even having their degree awarding status removed.
“The new Office for Students (OfS) will, as a matter of routine, undertake analysis of degree classification trends and identify any cases where the pattern may suggest good or poor practice,” they said.
“The agreement of clear, sector-recognised standards will also be key to enabling the OfS to take strong regulatory action where grade inflation is happening.”
Currently, institutions are in control of grade boundaries and how their final degree classifications are calculated, which is a system that some have suggested is exploitable.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy (HEPI) told the Telegraph:
“Universities are essentially massaging the figures, they are changing the algorithms and putting borderline candidates north of the border.
“There is this level of competition which means that if you want to do better than your competitors you need to award the same number or more firsts than them. Competition, in part driven by league tables, has added extra incentives to award higher marks.
Ultimately it is the students that lose out. If it continues we will be looking at a serious problem,” he concluded.
Back in July 2017, David Palfreyman, the director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, suggested it was difficult to pinpoint the reason as to why there has been a sharp increase in first-class degrees, and it does raise questions about grade inflation, but proposed that maybe students are just better prepared than previously, and taught better than in the past.
A spokesperson for Universities UK revealed that they plan on working alongside universities to help remedy the problem or identify causes of the increase, to “explore how the sector defines degree classification boundaries and evaluating the causes of the increasing proportion of good degrees awards.”
To read the full report and figures obtained by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, visit: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/11-01-2018/sfr247-higher-education-student-statistics