The number of first and upper second class degrees awarded has increased for the fourth year in succession, prompting fresh calls for reform to the degree classification system.
A total of 32,500 firsts were awarded last academic year - a rise of nearly 8 per cent on the previous year and representing 11 per cent of all degrees awarded, compared with 10 per cent in 2003-04.
The number of upper seconds awarded grew by 4 per cent to 132,800, representing 43 per cent of the total. Data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Department for Education and Skills show how this trend has continued since 2000-01. Over the period, the number of firsts awarded has shot up by nearly 35 per cent, and the number of upper seconds has increased by 12 per cent.
The news brought fresh calls for a revamp of the degree classification system, even though the number of firsts and upper seconds as a proportion of all degrees awarded has remained the same, at 54 per cent, for the past three years. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said the figures suggested the system was failing to distinguish achievement at first degree level in the way it used to. He said: "What is needed is a new, accurate way of distinguishing achievement for the benefit of employers and those awarding research scholarships. The current scale used to do that, but now, possibly because of modularisation and the subjective judgment of examiners, it is no longer such a useful indicator."
Four months ago a steering group on measuring and recording student achievement, led by Leicester University vice-chancellor Robert Burgess, published outline proposals for a new three-point classification scale backed up by a detailed academic transcript recording achievements.
Commenting on this week's figures, Professor Burgess said: "The class of 2005 has clearly performed very well, but there is still a need to provide more information about the quality of their degrees." Professor Smithers warned, however, that employers were unlikely to welcome a narrowed point scale or the introduction of a detailed academic transcript. "The trouble with transcripts is that they can become a bit indigestible if too much detail is provided. It would be better to subdivide the first degree classification into two or three, to show who has got a good first degree and who is borderline," he said.
Overall, there were 306,365 first degree graduates last academic year, an increase of 5 per cent on the previous year. The Hesa figures also show that the number of foundation degrees awarded nearly doubled from 3,135 in 2003-04 to 6,175 last academic year.