Number of students awarded first class degrees soars

The proportion of firsts handed out by UK universities has soared, with a third of institutions now grading at least one in four degrees with the top honour.

In some cases, the proportion has more than doubled in five years, according to Press Association analysis of official data.

New figures detailing student enrolment and qualifications show a quarter of students at UK universities now graduate with a first-class degree – a dramatic increase from just 17 percent in 2012. Last year almost three quarters of students achieved a 2:1 or higher, compared with just two-thirds five years ago.

The University of Surrey awarded a first-class degree to 41% of students last year, more than doubling the proportion five years ago.

And firsts awarded at the University of East Anglia have almost trebled to 34%.

The Press Association analysis shows:

  • At 50 UK universities – roughly a third of the total – at least 25% of degrees awarded in 2015/16 were a first, while at 10 institutions, more than a third were given the highest award. By contrast, in 2010/11 just 12 institutions gave at least one in four degrees a first, and only two gave more than a third the top honour.
  • On average, across all institutions there has been around an eight-percentage point rise in firsts in the last five years, the analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data shows.
  • Just seven institutions have seen a fall in the proportion of firsts.
  • Five universities and colleges have seen the proportion of top honours rise by at least 20 percentage points, while 40 institutions have seen at least a 10-point hike.
  • The rise comes amid concerns over suspected grade inflation as universities face increasing pressure to act competitively to fill places. One expert said some increase is not unreasonable, but that issues such as university rankings may fuel grade inflation.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: “Some rise is not unreasonable, given that schools have got better and some universities have increased their entry tariffs so they’re getting better quality students.”

However, with most graduates now having top grades to show on their CV, employers have claimed it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between job candidates and pick out the brightest students.

The concerns have prompted many universities to introduce additional character reports alongside degree classifications, giving a more detailed breakdown of students’ academic performance and extra-curricular awards and activities.

Highest proportions of first-class degrees in mainstream universities

  • Imperial College London 41.8%
  • University of Surrey 41.2%
  • University College London 35.6%
  • University of Dundee 34.8%
  • University of East Anglia 34%
  • University of Oxford 33.2%
  • King’s College London 31.9%
  • University of Cambridge 31.7%
  • University of Bath 30.8%
  • University of Salford 30.4%

Biggest increases in first-class degrees in mainstream universities 2010-11 to 2015-16

  • University of Surrey 19.3% to 41.2%
  • University of East Anglia 12.5% to 34%
  • University of Bradford 10.3% to 27.6%
  • University of Stirling 11.6% to 27.8%
  • University of Derby 9.4% to 25%
  • University of Dundee 19.3% to 34.8%
  • University of West London 11.6% to 27%
  • University of Wales Trinity Saint David 7.1% to 22.2%
  • Southampton Solent University 8.6% to 23.5%
  • Staffordshire University 12.2% to 27%