The proportion of students gaining first-class honours degrees increased again last year from 10 per cent to 11 per cent, figures revealed this week.
The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 29,700 students got the top degree in 2003-04, 1,400 more than the 28,300 who obtained firsts the previous year. Some 8.2 per cent of students gained firsts in 1999-2000.
Responding to concerns that the figures show a decline in academic standards, a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said:
"Talk of grade inflation is unfair to the hard work of students.
"The standards of degrees awarded by higher education institutions are subject to independent review by the Quality Assurance Agency and external examiners."
She added: "QAA reviews over the past seven years have consistently indicated that quality and standards are being maintained."
There were a total of 8,700 more graduates in 2003-04 than the previous year, with 282,100 gaining bachelors degrees compared with 3,400 in 2002-03.
Although women continue to dominate the undergraduate ranks, making up 56 per cent of all graduates, male students continued to take the lion's share of firsts. Some 11 per cent of males gained firsts, whereas 10.3 per cent of females did.
The proportion of students gaining upper-second class degrees fell from 45 per cent in 2002-03 to 44 per cent in 2003-04. The proportion of students who obtained either a first or an upper-second had remained constant, at 55 per cent, for the previous three years.
About 10 per cent of students gained their degrees through part-time study, down from 11 per cent in 2002-03.