New data indicates a national 4% rise in students achieving firsts and 2:1s

Image credit: Phillip Nickerson Jr.

New data has shown an increase in students who are being awareded a first or 2:1, from 75% in 2013/14 to 79% in 2016/17.  There remain startling differences in final grade achievement between students of different genders and ethnicities.

Based on data released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the proportion of students receiving firsts or 2:1s has increased across almost all A-Level entry grade requirements. The number of A*A*A* or A*A*A students receiving firsts or 2:1s has remained constant since 2013/14, at 95%. However, there has been an increase in almost all other profiles, ranging from a 1% increase in A*AA students to 9% in students of CCD profiles and below. The Times reported these figures as “grade inflation”, and the trend does raise questions for final grade allocations across the board. Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, stated in February in his guidance to the Office for Students that “unchecked grade inflation risks damaging the reputation of the entire Higher Education sector”, although he did not make specific reference to recent results.

Other factors affecting results, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, and educational disadvantage, remain significant. Women outperformed men, with 81% female students completing their degree with a first or 2:1 compared to 76% of men. The 5% disparity has remained constant since 2013/14. This pattern mirrors evidence from secondary school education indicating that girls outperform boys in almost all attainment measures, including GCSEs. When taking into account institutional differences, course type differences, and demographic factors, the gap between men and women increased from 4.7% to 5.1%, meaning that these factors do not account for the disparity. This difference does not translate entirely into employment; men with first-class degrees were 1.8% more likely to be in graduate employment than women with the same grade. However, slightly more women with 2:1s or below were in graduate employment, compared with their male counterparts.

Impacts of educational disadvantage at university entry were also manifested in final grades; 72.9% of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, as determined by the Participation in Local Areas (POLAR) metric, completed university with a first or 2:1, compared to 83% amongst the least disadvantaged. This difference can be explained significantly by lower entry grades amongst disadvantaged students; once these were taken into account, the unexplained disparity between the most and least disadvantaged fell to 2.3%. Interestingly, at BCC entry and below, the least disadvantaged students consistently performed worse than the most disadvantaged. In terms of graduate employment, employment rates amongst the most disadvantaged were 4% lower than the least disadvantaged; this has fallen from a 6% difference in 2013/14.

For disabled students, there remains a difference in attainment; 3% fewer disabled students gained firsts or 2:1s at the end of their degrees than students without a disability, regardless of whether they received Disabled Students Allowance or not. This has remained constant since 2013/14. It is also reflected in employment data: 71% of disabled students from the 2015/16 cohort were in graduate employment, compared with 73% of students without a disability.

Intersectional data were not available. There were also significant differences amongst students of different ethnic backgrounds: 82% of white students completed their degrees with a first or 2:1, compared to 72% of Asian students, 75% of students of “mixed” heritage, and 60% of black students. Even when entry grades were taken into account, there was a 17% unexplained difference between the final grades of white and black students; this unexplained difference was at 10% for Asian students, and 6% for “mixed” students. The lower the entry grades were, the more extreme this disparity was; there was a 7% difference in A*AA students, and a 22% difference amongst students with low BTEC grades.

These data indicate that the eventual grade trajectories of students entering universities are largely consistent with entry criteria and demographic factors, which raises the question of whether universities are doing enough to level the playing field amongst their diverse cohorts. Intersectional data were not available, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the combined impact of entry grades and demographic factors, although it is clear that entry grades only account for some of the differences in final grade achievement.

 

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