According to the most current data, students are receiving more first-class degrees. In three of these countries, they are being achieved amid fears over ‘grade inflation.  

In the 2020/21 academic year, more than a third – 36% – of degrees were firsts, achieving a final grade of 70% or above, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) today. 

The figure is up from 35% for 2019/20 and 28% for 2018/19. It’s a significant increase compared with just 14% during the 2009/10 academic school year.

According to the statistics, more female students earned a first (or a 2:1) than their male counterparts last year.

This news is coming after universities were informed in January that increases in 2 and 1 degrees must be explained and they need to reduce the amount of degrees that are awarded.

According to data published by Universities UK (UUK), four out of five universities now examine how degree classes are calculated in an effort to curb grade inflation.

UUK claimed that increases in top-degrees reflected genuine student improvement and better assessment methods. But it also stated: ‘Where providers are unable to explain the rises, providers should review their policies and data to identify the reasons and then, if necessary reduce, the trend.

Researchers at HESA believe that the higher proportion of top degree holders in second-year runs could be due to universities improving the assessment of students to reduce the impact of coronavirus disruptions.

In the 2020/21 academic year, more than a third - 36% - of degrees were firsts, achieving a final grade of 70% or above, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) today (stock image)

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA), more than a third (36%) of all degrees in 2020/21 were firsts. They achieved a final grade at 70% or higher (stock image).

Covid’s effects led universities in 2019/20 to adopt safety net or ‘no damage’ assessment policies. This ensured students wouldn’t be given a grade lower than their most recent university assessment.

HESA researchers in 2020/21 reported that while there weren’t any ‘blanket no harm’ policies in place, some assessment changes such as open book exams helped students achieve their top degree for the second consecutive year.

According to researchers, policies implemented at universities in the past year were diverse. However, they appear to be making it easier for students’ extenuating circumstances to be claimed and to arrange resits/resubmissions of assessments that have been disrupted because of the pandemic.

They added that if you add that to the fact that the majority of assessments were still online (normally with some modification in format, open book, to cope with difficulties of online proctoring etc), then you will see that the 2019/20 policies have no detrimental effects on the next year.

University College London, for example, offered online exams that could be taken over 24-hours to allow students to choose when they want to study.

At University College London, most online exams took place over a 24-hour period to give students flexibility about when to take their exams (pictured: UCL main building)

Online exams at University College London were conducted over 24-hour periods to allow students to choose when they want to take the exam (pictured: UCL main buildings). 

Brunel University students in London were granted an uncapped second attempt at their January exams. If they fail them, it was part of a series of safety net precautions.   

Data released Tuesday revealed that total degrees, including masters, rose by 9% in the last year, most of it due to an increase of part-time degrees.

Nick Hillman (director of Higher Education Policy Institute) stated: “These positive new figures show three very clear things. The first is that the Covid crisis was a complete misunderstanding by the people who predicted it would discourage learning.

“Secondly, people are rational. They have responded to unprecedented crises by trying to improve themselves via education. It also shows that our educational system has performed against all odds.

“Officially, the crises have presented huge difficulties for both students and staff. No one has been able to enjoy the last few years. So we cannot ignore the true challenges.

Students at Brunel University, London, were offered an 'uncapped' second attempt to sit their January exams if they failed them as part of a number of safety net measures last year

Brunel University in London offered students an uncapped second chance at their January exams, if they failed, as part of various safety net precautions last year 

“But these new data uncover one big positive: our people and educational institutions continue to thrive when tested,” he said. They look forward and not back.

Universities UK spokesperson said, “The number of 2nd and 1st class degrees this year is about the same as last year. It is a reflection on the adjustments universities made in response to the unique challenges that students experienced during the pandemic.”

“In certain cases this involved new assessment methods and recognising the students’ achievement level before the pandemic.

“We expect grade inflation to return to pre-pandemic levels,” they stated, noting that the most recent briefing revealed universities were “continuing to take steps in order to preserve confidence in degree value.”

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary said that staff went beyond the call of duty to help students in times like the Pandemic. The increase in degrees awarded to these students is a testament to their dedication.

“Equally, an increase in student numbers close to 10% is a endorsement of the quality education university staff offer.

“Unfortunately, the university leaders refuse to have the same faith in their employees as the hundreds of thousands of applicants to UK universities. The working environment and pay of staff continue to decline, and the employers have made drastic reductions in their pensions.

“These conditions forced employees to organize three days of strikes at the close of last year.

“With the UK’s student population increasing, it is imperative that management invest in staff, raise wages, protect pensions, and improve working conditions. Students across the UK could strike if bosses at universities refuse to make this happen.

From 15% of degree recipients in 2019/20, to 14% for 2020/21, the proportion of degrees that achieve a 2:1 was down. According to the latest HESA statistics, 46% received a degree with a 2:2, while 3% earned a 3:2 or pass.