Almost 10,000 more students graduated with first-class degree honours in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, with a total of 79,440 receiving top marks, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 15 January
Some 6 per cent more students also received an upper second degree last year, while 2 per cent fewer graduated with a 2:2 and 7 per cent fewer received a third, Hesa also says. Overall, graduations rose by 4 per cent last year, it adds.
It means nearly one in five graduates (19 per cent) now receives a first compared to just 8 per cent in 1999.
The latest data is likely to fuel the debate over degree inflation as some 70 per cent of students now leave university with either a first or a 2:1, up from 68 per cent in 2012-13.
The proportion of students graduating with at least a 2:1 has increased every year since 2009-10, when just 63 per cent of graduates gained those marks.
Women achieved higher marks on average than men, with 72 per cent awarded at least a 2:1 compared to 68 per cent of men.
The figures are likely to give fresh impetus to a pilot study, led by the Higher Education Academy, to test a “national grade point average” system.
Six Russell Group universities are among the 20 higher education institutions looking at whether the US-style grading system can run alongside traditional degree classifications.
The UK’s current system has been frequently criticised as a blunt instrument, whose “cliff edges” are unfair to students who narrowly miss out on a 2:1.
Hesa’s figures have also shown a continuation of the dramatic decline in part-time student numbers.