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First-class degrees double in a decade as warnings mount over Covid grade inflation

By India McTaggart
More than half of the firsts awarded to students in 2021 cannot be explained when compared with results a decade ago - Chris Radburn/PA
More than half of the firsts awarded to students in 2021 cannot be explained when compared with results a decade ago - Chris Radburn/PA

First-class degrees have more than doubled in a decade as a watchdog has warned that Covid cannot be used as an excuse for “baked in” university grade inflation.

Data from the Office for Students (OfS) released on Thursday shows that more than half of the firsts awarded to students in 2021 cannot be explained when compared with students’ results a decade ago.

The proportion of graduates who attained top degrees rose from 15.7 per cent in 2010/11 to 37.9 per cent in 2020/21, amounting to a 142 per cent increase, according to the OfS.

In total, 84.4 per cent of students achieved a first or 2.1 compared with 67 per cent 10 years ago.

The OfS said this equates to nearly six in 10 first-class degrees being unexplained when factors such as students’ background, age and A-level results are taken into account and compared to the 2010/11 cohort.

However, watchdog chiefs warned that the trend has been a “real credibility issue for the sector for some time”, and that “the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to allow a decade of unexplained grade inflation to be baked into the system”.

The OfS said it was aware of how universities had used “no detriment” policies to adapt their assessments to the pandemic, whereby testing was adapted so that no student would be academically disadvantaged because of the pandemic.

This approach typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their attainment.

However, the OfS found that the rates of first-class honours had risen for all students since 2010/11, with a pre-pandemic report also finding that nearly half of the firsts awarded in 2018/19 were unexplained.

‘Unmerited grade inflation is bad for students’

Following the publication of the report, the minister for higher education warned that the findings of “unjustifiable” grade inflation at universities “threaten to undermine the value of UK degrees”.

Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive at the OfS, said the report “starkly demonstrates the scale of increases in degree classifications in our universities and colleges”.

“Unmerited grade inflation is bad for students, graduates and employers, and damages the reputation of English higher education,” she said.

The OfS found that in 2020-21, 60.8 per cent of students with three As and above at A-level received a first at university, compared with just 33.5 per cent in 2010-11.

The report also found that the average rate of firsts for those entering with three Ds at A-level and below has increased more than fivefold, from 5.3 to 28.5 per cent.

Ms Lapworth added that it is “essential” that students, employers and graduates have “confidence that degrees represent an accurate assessment of achievement”.

She said the OfS would be publishing more details on how it will investigate grade inflation at institutions shortly.

Unexplained firsts

The highest proportion of unexplained firsts handed out in 2020-21 was at the Royal Academy of Music, where 59.3 per cent of firsts were unexplained.

The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, Leeds Conservatoire, New City College, and the University of Bradford were also among the top five highest number of unexplained firsts in the report.

The data on degree classes was based on 143 institutions, looking at the outcomes for 266,705 graduates.

Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said: “Just as Ofqual has set out its approach to grading, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023 following a transition stage next year, it is important that universities do the same to restore pre-pandemic grading.

“Unjustifiable increases in the proportion of top degrees being awarded threaten to undermine the value of UK degrees.

“We expect the Office for Students to challenge registered providers with an excessive proportion of top degrees being awarded.”

Entry grades should not limit expectations

Prof Steve West CBE, the president of Universities UK, said that “universities remain committed to addressing grade inflation” by “reviewing the degree classification system and the way final grades are calculated”.

He added: “The Office for Students has rightly designed a regulatory system based on the principle that the grades a student enters university with should not limit expectations of what they can achieve, and this logic must also apply to degree classification.

“Universities have been asked to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to succeed at university. We believe the OfS must be careful not to assume that students with lower entry grades, typically from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot achieve first-class degrees.”

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Dive Deeper:
Too many first-class degrees awarded in England, regulator says
Minister calls for universities to restore pre-pandemic award levels by next year
White private schoolboys ‘are disadvantaged group due to culture war’ Cambridge academic claims
Historian says school names should ‘probably’ be removed from application forms to avoid this
First graduating class is a milestone in KyCAD’s history as an independent art college
First graduating class is a milestone in KyCAD’s history as an independent art college
Commentary: Fair representation: More Black people needed in STEM today
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
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Get all your news in one place