Numbers of firsts awarded soaring

The number of firsts obtained by UK undergraduates has almost doubled in the last ten years, figures show. Statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 17% of British students, a total of 61,600, graduated in 2012 with a first class degree, whilst 66% of students gained at least a 2:1. In 2002, 26,100 undergraduates were awarded first class degrees. The number of undergraduates has risen by around 50%, but the proportion of firsts awarded has risen at a higher rate, with the number of firsts awarded in 2002 making up only 10% of student grades.

The figures have led some to call for the monitoring of supposed ‘grade inflation' in the higher education marking system. Each year record highs in GCSE and A-Level results are reported, a trend which seems to be emerging for higher education results too.

Figures obtained by The Cambridge Student show that Cambridge's figures have actually dropped in the last ten years. In 2002 Cambridge awarded 1,095 firsts, representing 33% of all grades. But in 2012 only 725 undergraduates achieved a first, 27% of the student population. Oxford seems more in line with the national trend, with 6% more Oxonians getting firsts in 2012 than in 2002. Meanwhile, Anglia Ruskin University awarded 16% of its undergraduates firsts in 2012, a rise in 6% from 2002, and Oxford Brookes rose by 5% from 2002 to 2012.

The university which awarded the most firsts in 2012 was Imperial College London, perhaps reflective of its specialism in science, engineering and mathematics courses. 815 of its students gained a first, representing 38% of all grades, 11% higher than the figure in 2001.

Concern has been expressed that pressure is being put on higher education institutions to achieve and therefore award better grades. Just as independent GCSE and A-Level exam bodies have reason to make their exams easier so more schools will choose their course, students are less likely to take a university course that lots of people fail or score poorly in. There is no limit to how many firsts can be awarded, so it may be that today's markers are more inclined to be generous. Some have questioned whether having a ‘national degree classification' even makes sense when courses are constructed, marked and mediated by individual institutions.

A report by the Higher Education Academy has suggested that another explanation for the rise in firsts could be that the "proportion of assessment marks derived from coursework has increased and coursework usually produces higher marks". Alongside the rise in coursework, there have been changes to the ways undergraduates study at university. Students now know just what they need to do to get a first, and they have access to resources such as examiner's comments, past papers, thoroughly explained grade boundaries, modules, and feedback on coursework drafts.

However it could be that the changes in grades are the result of students' actions rather than universities'. As graduate job prospects worsen and tuition fees rise, it may be that students feel the need to make more of their degrees. Many competitive employers notoriously use the 2:1 grade as a cut-off mark for applicants, but studies are now claiming that some will only consider applicants with a first. A second year engineer at Peterhouse told TCS:"At matriculation we were told that there was once a time when a 2:2 from Oxbridge was better than a 2:1 from another university, but that today if we graduated with less than a 2:1 we would end up stacking shelves in Sainsburys. The pressure is definitely higher, and a degree – even from one of the best universities in the world – is not enough."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford told The Telegraph: "We do not know why more students have been getting firsts. It could be that they are working harder or it could be that they are better taught than in the past. It could be that as the nature of assessment has changed with a greater emphasis on coursework and less on a single summative exam, it has allowed harder working students to do better. Or it could be that marking is less rigorous. I suspect it is probably a combination of these factors."

Jenni Reid - News Reporter

Photo - Jimmy Appleton

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