The percentage share of undergraduates achieving a first-class degree increased slightly last year to a record high, prompting the Office for Students to warn it will consider what action to take to tackle the upward trend.
Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) today revealed that 36% of undergraduate students achieved a first in 2020-21 – an increase of one percentage point compared to the previous year.
That over a third of undergraduates completed their degree with the highest classification has prompted the OfS – which regulates higher education in England – to issue a statement warning of the dangers of grade inflation.
The percentage share that finished with a 2:1 fell slightly, from 47% to 46%.
The share of firsts has grown 10 percentage points, from 26%, in the five years from 2016/17. Although the percentage of 2:1s has fallen slightly in that same period, the share of students achieving one of the two highest degree classifications has risen from 75% to 82%. The number of upper-class degrees has changed substantially since 2006/07 when 63% of degrees awarded were firsts or 2:1s. Though this decade-long upward trend appeared to stall for three years between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the pandemic has sparked fears of grade inflation once again.
We must be careful to ensure that the results of the pandemic do not bake grade inflation into the system
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students
In response to the Hesa statistics, the OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “Following a stalling of the increase in the proportion of students being awarded first-class honours prior to the pandemic, these figures show us numbers are on the rise again.
“Ensuring that qualifications stand the test of time is crucial both in ensuring that students know that their efforts are properly and accurately reflected in their degrees and in preserving the integrity of our higher education sector.
“Clearly, degrees awarded in 2020-21 were done so in the continued extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, where study was disrupted. But we must be careful to ensure that the results of the pandemic do not bake grade inflation into the system.
“The OfS will further consider changes in degree classifications in light of a continuing upwards trend of the proportion of students being awarded the top grades, including considering regulatory action where appropriate.”
Last week, Universities UK – which represents the vice-chancellors of 140 institutions – issued a statement that warned nearly half of its 140 members might struggle to tackle unexplained degree grade inflation this year. The briefing set out how UUK was working in concert with members to arrest the upward trend – but a survey of its members suggested 47% do not feel they are in a stronger position to stop unexplained increases in top degrees awarded.
The causes of grade inflation since the start of the pandemic are not universally accepted. The OfS has mooted that no-detriment ‘safety net’ policies might be the cause. UUK argues that no-detriment schemes are part of a more complex picture of improved teaching and accessible assessments. Most universities did not use no-detriment policies in the 2020-21 academic year: Hesa suggests that other factors, such as the other disruption mitigation measures employed by universities last year, could be the cause of sustained grade inflation.
“Although many of the blanket ‘no-detriment’ policies of the previous year were discontinued at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, the 2020-21 academic year was still subject to pandemic-related disruptions,” wrote Hesa’s lead policy and research analyst Lucy Van Essen-Fishman.
“Much learning took place remotely, access to campus facilities was limited, and many students needed to self-isolate at various points.
“Many providers, therefore, instituted modified mitigation or ‘no-detriment policies’ designed to take into consideration the ongoing difficulties faced by students.”
Other details revealed by the Hesa statistics:
- The number of international students enrolling in the UK universities increased by 12,000 last year, equivalent to 4% more than 2019/20 – but the numbers from China fell for the first time by 5%. Most of the growth in international enrolment was driven by students from India.
- Total HE enrolments rose 9% compared to the previous year to 2.75 million. The majority of this was the result of a bumper year of UK-domiciled entrants.