Share of firsts stays high despite end to ‘no-detriment’ policies

Figures could prompt further concerns over whether pandemic-era grading uplift is now ‘baked in’

January 25, 2022
Number one balloon
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The share of undergraduates leaving university with a first-class degree remained well above a third last year despite many universities ending blanket “no-detriment” policies on course grading.

According to the latest data on student qualifications and enrolments from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 36 per cent of bachelor’s degree students achieved a first in 2020-21, a slight rise on the 35 per cent that left university with the top grade in 2019-20. The share achieving a 2:1 fell slightly, from 47 per cent to 46 per cent.

The 2019-20 figure for firsts had been a substantial rise on the year before, an increase thought to be largely due to no-detriment policies – brought in during the early months of the pandemic – that typically gave students a final grade that did not fall below previous assessments.

In notes accompanying the latest data, Hesa says the fact that the share of firsts has remained high may reflect other mitigation policies used by universities to support the next cohort of students through the pandemic.

“Although many of the blanket ‘no-detriment’ policies of the previous year were discontinued at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, the 2020-21 academic year was still subject to pandemic-related disruptions,” writes Hesa’s lead policy and research analyst Lucy Van Essen-Fishman in an “insight brief” on the data.

“Much learning took place remotely, access to campus facilities was limited, and many students needed to self-isolate at various points.

“Many providers therefore instituted modified mitigation or ‘no-detriment policies’ designed to take into consideration the ongoing difficulties faced by students.”

However, despite such explanations, the sector – which had appeared to have responded to concerns about grade inflation before the pandemic – could come under further pressure over the rise in firsts and whether they are here to stay.

Last year, the Office for Students warned that there was “more to be done” to ensure “temporary changes in response to the pandemic” did not “bake in further grade inflation”.

Elsewhere, the Hesa data show that international student recruitment by UK universities continued to grow in 2020-21, bucking predictions at the start of the Covid crisis, although the number of new entrants from China fell for the first time.

In total, there were 4 per cent more new entrants from outside the UK in 2020-21, a rise of almost 12,000 on 2019-20, an increase that was driven almost entirely by taught postgraduate recruitment.

However, as well as this being a smaller increase in overseas entrants compared with the growth in previous years, the number of first years from China fell by 5 per cent, with recruitment from India being the main source of the rise.

The figures on international enrolments also do not break down how many students were on courses that would normally be taught in person, but who then studied online from abroad for part or the whole year.

Overall, total higher education enrolments in the sector stood at 2.75 million last year, an increase of 9 per cent on 2019-20. This was mainly due to a huge rise, of more than 100,000, in UK entrants.

This rise was shared relatively equally between undergraduates and postgraduates, with the former cohort being affected by the sudden shift to teacher-predicted school-leaving grades in the summer of 2020.

The insight brief also points out that 2020-21 had seen a particularly large increase in taught postgraduate students studying part-time. “While we cannot be sure that this increase is due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible that the pandemic had an impact on some students’ decisions about postgraduate study,” it says. 

In terms of disciplines that saw some of the biggest rises in recruitment, subjects allied to medicine (such as nursing and pharmacy) saw a 20 per cent growth in the number of first-year undergraduates.

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Reader's comments (1)

Grade inflation is caused by poor management decsions and admin types who are bending over backwards to keep as many students on the books as possible. They are allowing far too long for assessments and virtually abolishing exams so students have all equations and information in front of them and time to chat to each other about solutions. This simply cannot happen under exam conditions but by doing away with exams it is getting beyond a joke the number of students that are getting firsts. An investigation needs to be undertaken to stop the rampant grade inflation ! Lecturers are then blamed when they submit grades that are too high when it is the mangers who have allowed the situation to arise and there is also blatant cheating going on by some students that cannot happen under exam conditons. It is essential to bring back exams to stop this.