Ben HaywardNovember 20th

The percentage of students in England awarded first-class degrees has risen by nearly 90% over eight years newly published data has revealed. 

In 2010-2011, 15.7% of graduates received the top grade of degree, increasing to 29.5% for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to data from the Office for Students (OfS).

This 88% increase is ‘largely unexplained’ by factors that could affect attainment, the report said, with the organisation’s chief executive warning that grade inflation is a ‘significant and pressing issue’ in higher education in England.

In real terms, the rise represents 42,000 more students graduating with firsts in summer 2019 compared with 2011, the figures show. 

Concerns about grade inflation have been ongoing for years in higher education as more and more first-class degrees are awarded each year. 

Last year, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, warned that grade inflation had become ‘entrenched’ in the system and was posing as significant risk of devaluing degrees in the greys of both students and employers.]

Speaking to vice-chancellors at the Universities UK conference at the time, Mr Williamson said: “In 1997, when I graduated, 50 per cent of students gained a first or 2.1. Last year, 80 per cent of students did so.

“In order to maintain our reputation, students need to be reassured that their degree will be worth something.”

Although the OfS found the proportion of students getting first-class degrees has continued to rise, figures show that the increase had actually slowed in recent years, with the proportion of firsts rising by just 0.2 percentage points between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Almost three-quarters of the 147 providers included in the analysis saw ‘unexplained’ increases in first class degrees between these dates, according to the OfS analysis.

Chief executive of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge, 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.”

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