Jo Johnson, the new universities and science minister, has outlined plans to tackle degree inflation, warning that the current system lets some students “coast”.
Mr Johnson said in his speech at Universities UK on 1 July: “The UK’s standard model of classes of honours is on its own no longer capable of providing the recognition hard-working students deserve and the information employers require.”
He added: “The teaching excellence framework we will introduce will include incentives for the sector to tackle degree inflation and ensure that hard-won qualifications hold their value.”
Mr Johnson said that the government’s autumn Green Paper would include among its goals a plan to “improve” the degree classification.
The comments may prove controversial among universities, which closely guard their autonomy on academic standards.
The sector has also undertaken its own work on improving degree classifications, including a pilot of a US-style grade point average system that has led to a recommendation for a five-year trial.
Mr Johnson said that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of people receiving firsts and 2:1 degrees, acknowledging that to some extent, this was down to “rising levels of attainment and hard work”.
But he added: “I suspect I am not alone in worrying that less benign forces are at work with the potential to damage the UK higher education brand.”
He continued: “In 2013-14, over 50 per cent of students were awarded an upper second, suggesting that this grade band not only disguises considerable variation in attainment, but also permits some to coast.”