Share of UK students getting a first goes up again

Latest Hesa data also reveal that part-time enrolments are now below 500,000

January 17, 2019
Number one balloon
Source: iStock/koya79

The share of graduates leaving UK universities with a first-class degree has jumped again, with 28 per cent now achieving top marks, according to new data.

Figures on qualifications for those graduating in the past academic year, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 17 January, show that 76 per cent achieved a “good” degree of a first or a 2:1.

This is up one percentage point on the year before, but it is the growing proportion of firsts – up two percentage points from 26 per cent in 2016-17 – that is driving the overall increase.

Hesa says that the share of undergraduate students achieving a first has risen by two percentage points every year since 2013-14, while the share of 2:1s appears to be falling back after peaking at 50 per cent in 2015-16. Meanwhile, the proportion of graduates achieving a 2:2 continues to decline and was down to 19 per cent last year.



The latest figures are likely to ratchet up the pressure even more on universities to tackle grade inflation – the awarding of higher marks despite student work being of the same standard – which many critics believe is behind much of the rise in firsts.

A sector-wide review of the issue was announced late last year after research commissioned by Universities UK and other bodies showed that most of the rise in firsts over recent years was “unexplained”.

Alongside the statistics on qualifications, there has also been a continuation of the decline in part-time enrolments, with overall numbers now falling below 500,000.

There were 498,545 part-time students enrolled in 2017-18, down 4 per cent from 519,825 the year before. Part-time numbers have now dropped by more than 100,000 since 2013-14, although there was an increase last year of about 4,000 in the number of part-time students starting bachelor’s degrees. There has also been another large fall in the number of students on undergraduate courses other than bachelor’s qualifications, for example foundation degrees, with total enrolments down 8 per cent.

Elsewhere, the Hesa data release on students also revealed that there was a fall in the number of undergraduate entrants from state schools for the first time in several years, while entrants from private schools rose.

There were a total of 34,140 undergraduates starting bachelor’s degrees in 2017-18 who were educated privately, up from 33,450 the year before, while the number from state schools fell by almost 2,000 to 361,675.

Meanwhile, the figures also showed that the boost in taught postgraduates since master’s loans were introduced in different parts of the UK has continued.

The number of students starting a taught master’s course went up by 6 per cent to just over 230,000 last year, while the total enrolled on postgraduate taught courses reached almost 567,000, a rise of 3 per cent.

Across all forms of study, the Hesa data show that there were 2.34 million students studying at UK universities in 2017-18, an increase of 1 per cent on the year before.

The number of first-year students from other European Union countries fell by 1 per cent, while those from outside the EU rose by 8 per cent, with more than two-fifths of these students coming from China.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

At this rate, a First will soon be the average and so become meaningless. Bring it on.

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