Six in 10 graduates get a first at UCL and Imperial

‘No detriment’ policies lead to wide variation in degree classifications across sector

February 17, 2021
The Quad at University College London, England, UK
Source: Alamy

Almost 60 per cent of students at two UK universities graduated with a first last year while only a fifth scored top honours at others as different uses of “no detriment” marking policies led to wide disparities in degree classifications, new figures have revealed.

According to data on degree classifications at individual universities in 2019-20, more than 20 large institutions had a share of firsts above 40 per cent last year, compared with just two the year before.

Sector-wide figures had already shown that 35 per cent of bachelor’s degree graduates achieved a first last year, up 7 percentage points on 2018-19, largely as a result of no detriment policies such as allowing final marks to be based on the grading of a smaller number of credits due to the impact of the pandemic.

The highest shares of top honours at universities where more than 500 classified degrees were awarded in 2019-20 were at UCL and Imperial College London, where 59 per cent of students achieved a first.

Imperial also had one of the highest shares of firsts in the sector in 2018-19, with 53 per cent, but UCL’s figure for graduates in 2019-20 represented an 18.5 percentage point rise on the year before.

One of the main elements of UCL’s no detriment policy was a “safety net measure” to base final degree classifications on the best 50 per cent of marks achieved by students.

A UCL spokeswoman said that the graduating cohort of 2019-20 had also “achieved slightly better module marks than previously – even before the emergency classification algorithms were applied”.

“This meant that when we did apply these blanket safety net measures, the result was an over-correction and an increased number of firsts were awarded last year which were well above UCL’s normal rates,” she said.

However, UCL’s year-on-year increase was not the highest among large universities. At the University of Plymouth, the share of firsts rose around 22 percentage points to 47 per cent.

A spokesman said it had introduced a “fair” and “proportionate” policy with “appropriate quality control measures in place to support our students in fulfilling their true potential in unprecedented times”.

He added that the university watched outcomes “very closely to guard against grade inflation” and last year’s results should be seen in the overall context of grade increases since 2014-15 being “much more moderate”.



Elsewhere, the share of students achieving top honours rose only slightly or, at a few institutions, even fell.

At the University of Bedfordshire, which did not have a blanket policy to adjust degree classification algorithms last year, the share of firsts dropped to 21 per cent from 24 per cent in 2018-19.

A spokeswoman said students had been supported “with a no-disadvantage policy which included the option to defer assessments and broadened the criteria for mitigation” while some grades were reviewed “if they were seen to have been impacted by the pandemic”.

The large spread in the outcomes from the use of no detriment policies could increase pressure on universities to bring in extra measures to help students this year or agree a common approach.

Many students have been campaigning for universities to use similar policies to 2019-20, although the Russell Group has been among those saying measures would not need to be as drastic given that universities have had time to adapt to online study.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

First class should be raised to 80% students have notes available to them and often far too much time to do the "exam" in. Sometimes they are being given a week to do what is normally done in a three hour exam. Of course no one seems to care, the students are happy, progression rates magically improve and money keeps coming into the universities.
Covid lockdown gave universities another excuse to engage in gross grade inflation. Degrees are worth less and less in the eyes of employers.

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