As 60 per cent of graduates receive the highest classification, calls for reform are growing, reports Phil Baty
Three out of five graduates left university with a top degree classification in 2006, raising fresh concerns about "grade inflation" and leading to renewed calls for the end of the classification system.
Figures published this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that for the first time 60 per cent of graduates gained first or upper second-class degrees in 2005-06. The proportion of firsts awarded rose to 12 per cent from 11.6 per cent the year before.
The proportion of firsts and upper seconds awarded, which rose by 1 per cent over 2004-05, has been climbing steadily for a decade. In 1995-96, 48 per cent of graduates gained a top degree, and less than 7 per cent got firsts.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, has pressed for the abolition of degree classifications on the grounds that they no longer provide meaningful information on a student's actual achievements.
He said: "These new figures continue to raise questions about the meaning of degree classifications. They provide more ammunition for those who believe the system is in need of reform." He added that although there "may be good reason for the increase", the reason was "not clear".
In 2006, 316,000 students completed first-degree courses: 34,800 of them gained a first, while 137,200 obtained an upper second, according to the Hesa figures. Just over 94,000 students got a lower second; 22,800 received a third; and 26,800 failed their degrees with an "unclassified" result.
The figures are likely to give renewed impetus to the government-backed group that has been reviewing the classifications system.
The leader of the group, Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, concluded last year that the system was not "fit for purpose".He proposed a system in which students would be given a simple pass/fail degree and a detailed transcript of their achievements.
Although consultation revealed that the plans were not popular with vice-chancellors, lecturers or employers, the Burgess group, which was due to meet as The Times Higher went to press, is expected to push ahead with the proposal in its final report, which is due shortly.
A separate proposal - to add an extra classification that would more clearly distinguish between the performances of the 137,000 graduating with an upper second - is likely to be dropped.
The lack of consensus over the recommendations raises the possibility of individual universities, or groups of universities, abolishing classifications while others stick with the scheme, one member of the group suggested. But the group is keen to build consensus, and it remains to be seen if any institution would break ranks in a competitive market.
Gillian Ania, a senior lecturer in Italian at Salford University, said:
"The median degree today is clearly the upper second, but the levels of knowledge and intellectual development it requires relate more accurately to the lower second of 20 years agoJ- and even to the third, a classification now rarely awarded."
She said that modular degrees, a reluctance among academics to fail students, more coursework and narrower syllabuses have all contributed to grade inflation.
Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "The figures hammer home (the fact) that degree classifications as currently applied no longer distinguish sufficiently. Employers now tend to do it on the basis of which university a graduate attended, which, in effect, is using A levels to distinguish between students. This does not leave room for students or universities to develop."
He said he did not support the proposed Burgess reform because transcripts "just confuse by providing too much information".
He said: "It is too much to hope that universities will go back to applying the present classification sensibly. We probably need a seven-point scale with suitable labels overseen by a qualifications body."
HOW 2006 ADDED UP
* Last year, there were 2,336,110 students enrolled at UK institutions, a 2 per cent rise over the previous year. Undergraduate enrolments rose by 2 per cent
* First-year undergraduate enrolments from non-European overseas students fell 6 per cent
* Science subjects rose in general popularity. Enrolments on biological sciences courses were up 5 per cent from 100,000 to 104,000, physical sciences up by 4 per cent and mathematical sciences up by 3 per cent
* 45 per cent of all full-time enrolments in 2005-06 were in science subjects, a rise of 2 per cent from the previous year, and a 6 per cent increase on 2002-03
* There were 315,985 first-degree graduates compared with 306,365 the previous year - a 3 per cent increase
* Enrolments on computer science courses fell 11 per cent to 65,000
* 57 per cent of first-degree graduates were women, up from 56 per cent
* 9,257 students were awarded a foundation degree, up from 6,175 the previous year.