One in three UK graduates got a first under ‘no detriment’ rules

OfS head warns that pandemic uplift must not ‘bake in’ further grade inflation over longer term

January 27, 2021
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More than a third of students in the UK graduated with a first-class degree as universities used “no detriment” policies in their grading because of the impact of the pandemic on final-year undergraduates.

The figure of 35 per cent of bachelor’s degree graduates gaining top honours in 2019-20 is a huge leap on the previous year – when 28 per cent achieved a first – and follows several years of growing concerns about grade inflation in the sector.

The data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, show that 82 per cent achieved “good” honours – a first or a 2:1 – although the share of those with an upper second-class degree actually fell from 2018-19 by 1 percentage point to 47 per cent. The share graduating with a 2:2 fell 4 percentage points to 15 per cent.



Universities introduced “no detriment” policies in determining final classifications for students graduating in 2019-20, the latter weeks of which were severely hit by the pandemic as learning moved online and exams were cancelled.

Such policies tried to ensure that students were awarded a final grade “no lower than the most recent provider assessment of their attainment”, according to a note from Hesa accompanying the data release.

Practical examples of how institutions might have applied the policy include allowing students’ degree classifications to be based on the grading of a smaller number of credits than usual.

News of the large number of firsts being awarded last year is likely to lead to questions about how the next few cohorts of undergraduate students, who have all had their studies disrupted by the pandemic to varying degrees, are treated.

Students have been campaigning for similar policies to be implemented this year, with some institutions already having taken such a step given that campuses across the country have largely been closed to face-to-face teaching since the Christmas holidays.

But the Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities said earlier this month that no detriment policies would not be “necessary or appropriate” this year because institutions had now spent time adapting to new ways of teaching, learning and assessment.

There is also the wider context of the pre-pandemic row about grade inflation, with efforts to put the brake on the growing share of firsts seeming to finally take effect in 2018-19, the last academic year before the Covid-19 crisis hit.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, England’s higher education regulator, said that efforts would need to be made to ensure that the 2019-20 increase in the share of firsts did not end up “baking in” further grade inflation over the longer term.

“Before the pandemic, OfS analysis found evidence that unexplained grade inflation at our universities had begun to slow. However, there is more to be done to ensure that students, graduates and employers can maintain their confidence in the value of a degree and temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation,” she said.

“This will require careful work that balances the importance of standards being maintained with recognition of – and response to – the exceptional pressures that students remain under this year.”

The Hesa student statistics also reveal that there was a huge uptick in the number of overseas enrolments before the onset of the pandemic, with entrants from countries outside the European Union rising by almost a quarter (23 per cent). It means that any large falls in overseas enrolments this year as a result of the pandemic will be from a high base. 

A major factor in the 2019-20 increase was a doubling in the total number of students from India, which went from 27,505 in 2018-19 to 55,465 in 2019-20, although 35 per cent of all non-EU students enrolled in 2019-20 were still from China, representing a total of almost 142,000 students.

The increase in overseas enrolments helped fuel a 15 per cent increase in overall entrants to taught master’s courses. About 33,000 more non-EU students started taught postgraduate courses in 2019-20, a rise of almost 30 per cent.

However, at the same time there was a noticeable fall in new postgraduate research enrolments, which fell 9 per cent, with more than 2,000 fewer people starting a PhD in 2019-20.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Our 'no detriment' policy provides for greater leniency around deadlines and for students choosing not to sit an examination for whatever reason to be allowed to retake it as a first attempt (i.e., no penalty)... it doesn't give them a free pass to a grade they haven't earned.
We were explicitly asked in writing to take it easier on the students in all assessments. Less work for them, less work for us in these challenging times. I reckon the real reason is that we also lowered our entry requirements massively to keep student numbers at the same level.

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