Why are so many students being awarded first class degrees?

[Shelby Loasby | News Sub Editor]

A recent report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency has revealed that one in six students leave university with a first class degree. The class of 2012 received 61,605 firsts, which has tripled since 1999 where 20,700 firsts were awarded.

Questions are being asked by higher education groups and Universities UK whether this increase is due to grade inflation by particular universities, or whether students are developing and learning at a higher calibre.

With the tough job market and high tuition fees it appears that students are working harder to ensure the best results and to guarantee that their education will not go to waste. With employers looking for students who have achieved a 2:1 or higher, students are determined to do their best.

This being said, some are arguing that universities have noticed this trend and in order to attract more students they are making it easier for the higher results to be attained. It is in the university’s interest to project good results across the board so that they get more ‘customers’ and investments.

Freedom of Information requests have revealed that some universities may be inflating grades for this reason. Documents from the University of East Anglia say; “To put it bluntly, too few students are being awarded 2:1’s and firsts.”

Suspicions also arose with the scandal of online businesses offering tailor-made essays for students to pass off as their own. Whilst this issue is being looked into, it has meant that people are also critical of tutors offering feedback on first drafts, allowing students to improve their work before submission.

However, this can be seen as a vicious cycle, as more students attending a university means more investments, which in turn results in more resources for better teaching and equipment, thus better results.

This leads to the fact that it is much easier for students these days to access more knowledge. Technological advances are allowing students to listen and watch recorded lectures, research information on more databases and have access to past papers. Universities can now also afford more subscriptions to libraries and archives giving students an upper hand in research.

Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Bahram Bekhradnia, said:

“We do not know why more students have been getting firsts. It could be that they are working harder or that they are better taught than in the past. It could be that the nature of assessment has changed with a greater emphasis on coursework and less on a single exam. Or it could be that marking is less rigorous. I suspect it is probably a combination of these factors.”

The ‘coursework vs. exams’ argument has also been circulating, and raising questions about whether exams are only beneficial for those who cope best under pressure and who can store short-term information.

Second year History and Mandarin student, Tia Marsom, said: “I definitely prefer coursework as it is more lenient and you’re able to utilise the skills you’ve learnt over the year. You are able to get greater in-depth research.”

Marsom went on to say that exams “stress her out”and she ultimately does poorly in them. She added: “I do think it is good to have exams as it gives you an inkling into what the working world is like.Getting used to working under pressure can’t be a bad thing I suppose!”

Second year Radiography student, Regina Cleary, was of a different opinion.

“I prefer doing exams than coursework because I hate writing essays!” she said. “I cope well under pressure, and I think doing exams tests your knowledge more as it make you learn things in far more detail than you would doing coursework.”

Cheif Executvie of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, also expressed that the current awards system is a “blunt instrument” that does not show what students actually achieve at university. The Higher Education Achievement Report agrees with Dandridge’s views and hopes to eventually provide employers with an accurate impression of graduates, rather than labelled by their degree classification.

There are obviously a lot of questions being asked and suspicions being raised about whether universities are ‘dumbing down’ standards to boost their reputations and attract students, or whether students are simply using the tools given to them and working hard to make it in a competitive working world.

What are your thoughts on the increasing firsts debate? Have your say in the comments or @TridentMediaUK!

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Why are so many students being awarded first class degrees?