Undergraduates aiming for a first-class honours degree have an increasing chance of success if they study botany, geology, artificial intelligence or aerospace, an analysis of degree classification trends has revealed.
They would be best to avoid doing a degree in medicine, imaginative writing, English, Portuguese or production and manufacturing engineering, where examiners appear to be clamping down on the proportion of firsts they award.
The analysis, showing changes since 2002-03 in the percentage of all degree qualifiers in each subject area that have been awarded firsts, was conducted by The Times Higher using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
It follows concerns raised last week over the degree classification system, when Hesa data demonstrated that 2004-05 saw a rise of nearly 8 per cent in first-class degrees compared with the previous year.
The statistics show that of all subjects for which data is collected by Hesa, botany has had the greatest increase in the proportion of firsts.
Although the number of people qualifying each year in botany is small, over a quarter (26.2 per cent) were awarded a first in 2004-05, a 7.9 percentage point increase on 2002-03 and a 10.5 per cent increase on 2000-01.
Gareth Griffith, a lecturer in mycology at Aberystwyth University's Institute of Biological Sciences, said: "Students who make it to university are above average, because they have stuck with botany despite the low priority given to the discipline in schools - a situation that seems to be getting worse."
Artificial intelligence, operational research, history studied by geographical area and Chinese studies are next in the roll call of subjects where it seems to be easier to get a first-class degree.
However, these subjects have small numbers of graduates, and therefore minor changes in enrolment can lead to big swings in the proportion of firsts awarded.
Among disciplines with more than 1,000 qualifiers, the biggest rise in the proportion of firsts awarded since 2002-03 has been in aerospace engineering.
Nearly one quarter (24.5 per cent) of aerospace engineering graduates gained a first last year, 3.2 percentage points higher than in 2002-03 and 7.2 percentage points more than in 2000-01, when the discipline was called aeronautical engineering.
Alan Jocelyn, professor of aerospace at the University of the West of England and chairman of the Association of Aerospace Universities, said:
"Technology in the industry is becoming more and more complex, so it seems irrational to suggest that degrees are getting easier. Perhaps we are seeing more firsts because the quality of entrants is going up."
Geology, electronic and electrical engineering, Spanish studies and mechanical engineering, are next among bigger fields where firsts are most often awarded.
Ted Nield, science and communications officer for the Geological Society, said: "Perhaps this reflects the fact that geology students are benefiting from the subject being one of the last to defend fieldwork contact hours with lecturers."
Andrew Ives, president of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, said: "It is excellent news that more students are passing with first-class honours. But I would certainly refute any claim that suggests it is easier to get a first in mechanical engineering over other subjects."
Production and manufacturing engineering had seen the biggest percentage point drop among the big non-medical subjects, followed by English studies and academic studies in education.
Among big medical subjects, clinical medicine saw a 15.7 per centage point drop in the number of firsts awarded. However, the picture is incomplete because many universities do not classify their medical degrees.
Topping the list of smaller subjects where firsts are comparatively hard to come by is imaginative writing, where only one in ten graduates got a first in 2004-05, followed by Portuguese studies and naval architecture.
Norman Vance, professor of English at Sussex University and chairman of the higher education committee of the English Association, said that imaginative writing courses were relatively new, and examiners were probably still making adjustments to their assessment methods.
The Times Higher 's analysis excludes "broadly based" and "other subjects in" categories, which are subject to change in their composition each year.