Nine out of 10 students get first or 2:1 at leading universities

Most students got a higher-class degree at every major institution in 2021-22, data show

二月 6, 2023
Source: iStock

A majority of students got a first or a 2:1 at every UK university last year, figures show, despite grade inflation easing after the pandemic.

At some elite institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, more than nine in 10 undergraduates achieved the top degree classifications.

The first ever fall in the proportion of students getting a first-class degree was previously welcomed by the sector’s regulator, the Office for Students. Overall 32.1 per cent of students got a first in 2021-22, down from 36.4 per cent, and 46.5 per cent got a 2:1.

Additional data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency give a provider-level breakdown of the classification of first degrees.

Analysis by Times Higher Education found that more than 50 per cent of students got a first or a 2:1 at every Universities UK or GuildHE member university which awarded at least 100 degrees.

Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said the number of firsts and 2:1s awarded has risen to “extraordinary heights”, with a sixfold increase in the past 40 years.

“It has come about as universities have competed for league table positions, used less rigorous assessment methods, and lowered their standards,” he told Times Higher Education.

“I have been in the room in two universities when an instruction came down from on high to award more good degrees.”

“No detriment” policies brought in because of the Covid-19 pandemic led to a steep rise in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in recent years, before their first fall in 2021-22.

Professor Smithers said that this was partly because of increased supervision of the assessment process, but more importantly because of an intervention from the OfS, which raised concerns about the normalisation of pandemic-era grade inflation.

Analysis shows that 87.7 per cent of students at Russell Group universities got a first or a 2:1 last year – down from a peak of 91 per cent in 2020-21, but still above the 85.9 per cent in 2018-19, before the pandemic.

Across all other higher education institutions, 75.5 per cent achieved the same result in 2021-22 – down from 79.5 per cent the year before.

These is a “huge gap” between these elite universities and the rest because they are highly selective, and the best predictor of degree class is entry qualifications, said Professor Smithers.

RankProviderFirsts and 2:1sFirsts2:1s2:2sThirds

Some specialist institutions awarded more firsts and 2:1s than anywhere else, but the rest of the top 10 is dominated by the country’s elite universities.

In addition to Oxford and Cambridge, more than nine out of 10 students received a first or 2:1 at the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, UCL and Durham University.

Every Russell Group member did award fewer top grades than in 2020-21, while only about 10 per cent of all providers reported an increase.



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Reader's comments (2)

A vast difference from when I was an undergraduate in the 60s. Then there was a bell shaped curve with the majority of degrees being Second class, division two.
Ah well, everyone must have prizes. The UKHE sector has simply followed on from the GCSE/ A-Level grade inflation racket. Virtually everyone working in the HEsector is aware of this and feels angry about it, but seems powerless to affect any change. I often feel like I am not working in an institution that puts academic rigour at the heart of its activities. Rather its more like working at a creche for late adolescents. The UK population as a whole appears aware of the stench from this rotting barrel of apples, but at the same time seems to buy into it. The motto for the sector as a whole should be Degrees: We Gottem!