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Number of first-class degrees has shot up

Some universities have awarded firsts to over a third of their students. The number has soared in recent years, with professor of education, Alan Smithers, calling this “chronic grade inflation”.

Highest Graduate EarnersThe University of Surrey has seen the largest change. 41.2% of its students graduated with firsts last year, compared with 19.3% in 2010-2011.

Imperial College in London bagged the top spot for the highest proportion of firsts among mainstream universities, at 41.8%.

Overall, more than a quarter of graduates walked away with firsts at Russell Group universities.

This number rises even higher when it comes to more specialist institutions, such as creative arts universities. The Royal Academy of Music, for example, awarded 64% of its student a top degree.

Want to get in on the action? Here's our guide on how to get a first.

How have grades changed?

The Press Association have analysed figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and found that a first is now more common than a 2:2. Last year, 24% of students graduated with a first, compared with 21% who achieved a lower class second. A 2:1 remains the most popular grade, with 51% of graduates gaining this.

Statistics show how times have changed. In 1994, only 7% of all students were awarded a first, meaning the proportion of firsts has more than trebled in twenty years.

Out the 148 universities, only very few saw the number of firsts awarded fall compared to five years previously. A more common trend was percentages doubling or trebling.

So why has this happened?

Universities are their own degree-awarding bodies. They can decide what levels of degree to award, unlike exams taken at school which are marked against a national standard.

Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute said: “it can all be a bit cosy – you ask someone you know to be an external examiner.”

Professor Smithers from the University of Buckingham highlighted that universities are “free to award as many firsts as they like. They have every incentive to do so. Students like to have top-class degrees and may choose universities on that basis.”

Professor Smithers believes that by increasing the number of firsts they award, universities could push themselves up the league tables. TEF we're looking at you.

Unfortunately, this is making it more difficult for employers to interpret the worth of grades, and “an upper-second has almost become the pass grade.”

With the rising tuition fees, first class degrees are looking more appealing than ever to prospective students. Top degrees will help them in the competitive graduate job market and many companies now refuse to take anyone with less than a 2:1.

Another argument suggests that rising degree grades simply reflect the improved A-Level grades in recent years. Those heading to university are entering with very impressive A-Level results and a more focused attention on studying.

The following tables highlight the top ten universities that awarded the highest proportion of firsts, and had the biggest increases in firsts compared with five years ago. Did yours make the lists?

Highest proportion of firsts by uni


University
Proportions
Imperial College London41.8%
University of Surrey41.2%
University College London35.6%
University of Dundee34.8%
University of East Anglia34%
University of Oxford33.2%
Kings College London31.9%
University of Cambridge31.7%
University of Bath30.8%
University of Salford30.4%

Biggest increases in firsts by unis 2010/11 to 2015/16

UniversityIncreases
University of Surrey19.3% to 41.2%
University of East Anglia12.5% to 34%
University of Bradford10.3% to 27.6%
University of Stirling11.6% to 27.8%
University of Derby9.4% to 25%
University of Dundee19.3% to 34.8%
University of West London11.6% to 27%
University of Wales Trinity Saint David7.1% to 22.2%
Southampton Solent University8.6% to 23.5%
Staffordshire University12.2% to 27%

If you’re currently looking at which universities to apply to, the above lists might help you. Or, if you’ve already started your course and feel worried about how you will achieve that top grade, why don’t you check out this guide to getting a first.

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