Rise in firsts awarded by UK universities stalls at last

Figures mark end of trend that has seen the share of students gaining the top degree class double since 2009-10

January 16, 2020
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The seemingly unstoppable rise in the share of students leaving UK universities with a first-class degree has finally stalled, new data show.

According to the latest figures on student numbers and qualifications released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 28 per cent of graduates achieved a first in 2018-19, the same proportion as the year before.

It brings to an end a period of consistent year-on-year increases in the share of firsts that has sparked a major row over grade inflation in the UK.

The share of students leaving university with other degree classifications also remained the same: 48 per cent achieved a 2:1, 19 per cent got a 2:2 and 4 per cent left with third-class honours or a pass.

It may be far too early to tell whether any political or regulatory pressure has had a role to play in the latest figures, but the Office for Students said that it would be analysing the data further.

“Previous analysis from the OfS found evidence of unexplained increases in the rates of first-class degrees at 94 per cent per cent of universities,” Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said.

“We will analyse this data further and report in the spring. We will use statistical modelling to determine the proportion of first-class degrees that can’t be explained by things like entry grades or the make-up of the student body. “

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, did not draw attention to the halt in the rise in firsts and 2:1s and instead pointed out that they remained at an “all-time high”.

“I know the sector is looking at this and while I recognise that change will take time, I expect action to end artificial grade inflation for good,” he said.

Elsewhere, the Hesa figures showed the first rise in the number of part-time entrants in several years, with a small 1 per cent increase to just over 240,000.

Overall, there were 2.38 million students in UK higher education in 2018-19, an increase of 2 per cent from 2017-18.

The number of students starting taught master’s courses went up by 5 per cent to almost 336,000, although much of this increase was down to overseas rather than domestic students. The Hesa data show that 55 per cent of full-time postgraduates in 2018-19 were from outside the UK.

Meanwhile, total entrants from non-European Union countries rose by 10 per cent in 2018-19, and the number of first-year students from China went up by 13 per cent. Hesa said that the year-on-year increases in Chinese student numbers meant that 35 per cent of all non-EU students in 2018-19 were from the country.

Data in the Hesa release also showed the proportion of UK students from different backgrounds, including the proportion from state schools and areas of low higher education participation.

However, some of these statistics showed little change over the past five years. The share of students from state schools has been 91 per cent since 2015-16, and the share from low participation neighbourhoods has not shifted from 12 per cent.

One thinktank called these statistics “dire” and something that “should be a serious cause of concern for the government”.

Imogen Farhan, an education researcher for Reform, added: “Throwing more money at the problem simply isn’t working – universities have spent millions trying to improve access in recent years.

“Urgent reform is required, which mandates universities to publish how they spend their widening participation budgets and commitment to admissions which consider a student’s background.”


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