Students with lowest A levels ‘see biggest jump in firsts’

Latest grading analysis in English universities shows share of firsts is up most for those with below three Ds

July 11, 2019
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Racing ahead more than 20 per cent of graduates who entered university with grades below DDD achieved a first in 2017-18

Students entering English universities with fewer than three Ds at A level had the biggest increase in the proportion graduating with a first-class degree last year, according to new figures.

According to a report from the Office for Students, those who started university with grades below DDD were also almost four times more likely to get a first in 2017-18 compared with 2010-11.

The figures come in a report that updates, with 2017-18 data and for all UK-domiciled students, a previous OfS analysis on degree classification results in English universities, amid the continuing debate over grade inflation.

In 2017-18, 29.3 per cent of students left English universities with a first and almost four out of five received either a first or a 2:1. Since 2010-11, the share of those getting a first has gone up 13.6 percentage points, a relative increase of 87 per cent, the report says.

The report also updates an analysis on how much of this increase in the share of firsts cannot be explained by changes in the make-up of the graduate population since 2010-11 (although improvements in teaching or students working harder could still be factors).

It finds that 13.9 percentage points’ worth of first-class degree attainment in 2017-18 is unexplained, an increase of 2.4 percentage points from 2016-17. It means that if changes in the graduate population since 2010-11 are taken alone, there should have been a lower proportion of firsts being awarded in 2017-18 compared with seven years earlier.

However, it is the data on the rise in firsts since 2016-17 for those with the lowest levels of prior A-level attainment that may raise the most questions for the sector.

More than 20 per cent of graduates who entered university with grades below DDD achieved a first in 2017-18, an increase of more than 4 percentage points since 2016-17.

The report adds that compared with 2010-11, “for some entry qualification groups the percentage point increases equate to more than a tripling in the proportion of graduates attaining a first class degree in 2017-18 compared with 2010-11.

“For example, graduates who entered with grades below DDD at A level (or equivalent) were almost four times as likely to receive a first class degree in 2017-18 as they were in 2010-11.”

The report also contains data on individual providers and how much of their own increase in the share of firsts is unexplained by changes in the graduate population since 2010-11.

At 15 universities, and excluding small and specialist providers, the unexplained portion of first-class degrees in 2017-18 was more than 20 percentage points, with the highest unexplained element being at the University of Huddersfield (29 percentage points), an institution where 40 per cent of students got a first last year.

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