Quarter of students in UK universities gain first-class degree

Latest Hesa data show that share of students with top degree has risen significantly since 2012-13

January 11, 2018
Podium of university ranking winners
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More than a quarter of UK university students gained a first-class degree in the last academic year, a significant rise since 2012-13, figures show.

Overall, 26 per cent of students who gained their first undergraduate degree in 2016-17 achieved a first, compared with 18 per cent in 2012-13, according to the latest release from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

A further 49 per cent of students obtained a 2:1, down one percentage point on the previous year.

This means that 75 per cent of students gained a 2:1 or a first in 2016-17, up from 68 per cent in 2012-13.

The figures follow an analysis last year that found that about a third of UK universities now award a first-class degree to at least a quarter of their undergraduates compared with just 8 per cent of institutions five years ago.  

The new data is likely to fuel the debate about grade inflation at UK institutions.

In September, former universities minister Jo Johnson warned that grade inflation was “ripping through English higher education” and confirmed his view that the teaching excellence framework would help tackle the issue.

A recent report from Universities UK and GuildHE also called for more transparency around degree algorithms and told universities to ensure that their policies on borderline scores do not in effect lower the thresholds for degree classifications.

A blog from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in response to the new Hesa data says that the rise in first-class degree holders can partly be explained by changes in students’ school qualifications.

A higher proportion of university students now have BTEC qualifications, rather than A-levels, and the number of students who entered higher education with the highest possible BTEC grades more than doubled to just under 7,000 between 2014-15 and 2016-17, it says.

The Hesa figures also report a continuing decline in the number of part-time students; there was a 4 per cent drop in the number of such students between 2015-16 and 2016-17 to 519,825.

There was also a 1 per cent drop in the number of students from outside the European Union in 2016-17, although the number of first-year overseas students remained steady. This follows a 1 per cent decline in first-year non-EU students last year.

But the number of first-year students from other EU countries increased by 7 per cent to 63,035. Most students starting university in 2016-17 would have applied for the course prior to the EU referendum in June 2016.

Elsewhere, there was a 10 per cent year-on-year rise in the number of first-year taught postgraduate students to 308,985 in 2016-17, its highest point in 10 years. This coincides with the introduction of postgraduate loans for master’s students from England.

While the number of first-year students taking their first degree increased by 1 per cent last year, other undergraduate first-year student numbers dropped by 8 per cent.

Hesa said that this could be explained by the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012, providers reclassifying their nursing courses from a diploma of higher education to a first degree from 2011-12, and a drop in the number of employers paying for staff to undertake continuing professional development courses since the downturn in the economy.


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