Increase in number of firsts awarded brings value and integrity of degrees into question

Image: HESA

Evidence has shown a steep increase in students graduating with first class degrees. Within the past five years the percentage of students graduating with firsts has soared, with almost a quarter of last year’s graduates achieving a 70 or above.

Published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 9 February, new figures state that 24 per cent of students who graduated in 2016 achieved a first class degree – soaring from 17 per cent in 2012.

The previous dip in the number of students graduating with firsts, and any other degree, follows the general reduction of student enrolment that followed the introduction of fees.

Overall, the proportion of students achieving both upper second and first class degrees has also risen, to 73 per cent from 2012’s 66 per cent. Said statistics have been published amid growing concerns of a culture of grade inflation within UK universities.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, appears apprehensive.

“There are valid questions about whether growing competition between universities is encouraging grade inflation,” he said.

Higher education is increasingly becoming market-based. As students are being given more choice, more pressure is placed on institutions to appeal to prospective students.

This, however, is at the cost of

current graduates. The majority are now presenting employers with top grades on their CV, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to deduce which potential employees truly are the brightest of the bunch.

This has led to many students feeling as though a 2:1 or above alone is no longer enough to launch a successful career, and that they must spend their spare time on extracurricular activities which can contribute to their CV.

One York third year states that: “There is a great deal more pressure on students nowadays to achieve highly, given the competition for jobs when we graduate.

“The fact that more students are getting firsts than ever before means that many of us feel increasingly that a degree alone isn’t enough, and more weight is given to extracurricular activities. The result is that nobody ever feels quite ‘enough’, and student morale is low.”

This has also decreased the value of a lower second class degree. Whereas in the early 90s, only around eight per cent of graduates achieved a first, meaning a 2:2 was relatively competitive on the employment market, only around a quarter of students now achieve less than a 2:1.

This results in what was once a perfectly respectable degree classification now being seen as underachievement. This continuing trend is unsustainable. If students adhere to the rising percentage of firsts among their cohort, it will soon lead not only to the complete devaluation of a first, as it reaches saturation point, but also bring into question the integrity of a degree.

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