New data shows rise in numbers of first class honours awarded

Eddie Spence 12 January 2018

New statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that more than 100,000 students graduated with first class honours nationwide in 2017, 26% of the total graduate population. For the first time the number of Firsts surpassed the number of 2:2s.This represents a continuation of the long established trend of grade inflation in Higher Education, with only 18% of undergraduates receiving the top grade in 2013.

Cambridge is also not blameless in this area. Last year examinations produced the greatest proportion of firsts in recorded history – standing at 28.2%. For comparison, just five years ago only 22.3% of Cambridge students received firsts.


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The National figures were also notable for gender disparities in outcomes. Women achieved 58,215 Firsts overall, compared to 42,695 men, although proportions within each sex were similar – 26% and 25% respectively. This trend was not reflected at Cambridge, where 32.5% of male students achieved Firsts, compared to 23.3% for female students. Women also received fewer thirds, with only 4% nationally graduating with the bottom grades, compared to 6% of men, also reflected at Cambridge where 2.6% of men and 2.2% of women achieved thirds.

The high levels of grade inflation have led to significant concern about laxer standards and purposeful manipulation of figures. Speaking to The Telegraph, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute said: “Universities are essentially massaging the figures, they are changing the algorithms and putting borderline candidates north of the border,”

“There is this level of competition which means that if you want to do better than your competitors you need to award the same number or more firsts than them.”

“Competition, in part driven by league tables, has added extra incentives to award higher marks. Ultimately it is the students that lose out. If it continues we will be looking at a serious problem”.

The Office for Students warned Universities manipulating grade criteria would face “strong regulatory action,” with suspect institutions to be monitored. Those breaching regulation may be publicly listed. The new regulator also has powers to levy heavier punishments, including stripping of degree awarding status.

Many have criticised Universities’ ability to set their own grading standards, calling for a consistent procedure for degree classification to prevent abuse by institutions. This could mean the end for Cambridge’s esoteric system, where honours are awarded by year, rather than providing an overall classification.