Traditional universities have increased their grades so much that the 2:1 has replaced the 2:2 as the most common degree awarded in many disciplines between 1974 and 1995, according to a report published this week by the Higher Education Quality Council.
The report also heralds a further investigation by the HEQC into the nature of "graduateness" as the best way of developing a publicly accessible understanding of academic standards.
The report, an early version of which was discussed at the annual residential meeting of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals in September, was compiled in response to former Education Secretary John Patten's call for more emphasis to be placed on broad comparability in the standard of degrees.
The move to higher grades by "old" universities came as a surprise to the authors of the report, Graduate Standards Programme: Interim Report. "It has often been assumed that grades have gone up in former polytechnics, but these figures are just for old universities," said Robin Middlehurst, director of the quality enhancement group at the council.
Mrs Middlehurst said the reasons for grade increases were not known, and therefore could not be taken as an indication that standards were going down.
The council investigated data on degree awards in eight subject areas over 21 years in what it calls "pre-1992 universities", or old universities. The subjects looked at were civil engineering, French, physics, history, biology, accountancy, mathematics anad politics.
It found a "general increase" in the proportion of "good" degrees, that is 2:1s and above, in all the subjects areas studied. The increase was mainly linked to an increase in the proportion of 2:1s being awarded, but all subjects showed a rising trend in the proportion of first-class honours degrees, especially in recent years.
The report says that the 2:1 has now become the modal degree class across the university system in all eight subjects it looked at, except civil engineering and maths. In 1973 similar research revealed that a 2:2 was the modal degree.
The report also found substantial variation in the proportion of "good" honours degrees awarded by different institutions. The proportion of total graduates who were awarded a 2:1 or above ranged from less than 30 per cent in some institutions, to more than 70 per cent in others.
As reported to the CVCP in September, the report found little evidence of a belief in comparability across subjects among academics, with several talking of comparability as a "polite fiction". It confirms that uniformity in the standards of degrees across all institutions is neither "desirable nor sensible", but acknowledges that a core curriculum might be desirable to practitioners and other stakeholders in some disciplinary areas.
The report argues that modularity clearly poses "considerable challenges to academic practice in the definition, evaluation and verification of academic standards at all levels in an institution" and that the council will be looking at criteria for "honours worthiness" in the next phase of the graduate standards programme. The HEQC will also investigate the range of award titles in higher education in the programme's next phase.