University firsts have more than quadrupled in eight years at some institutions, amid a grade inflation “race to the bottom”, a report has warned.
The rapid increase in top degrees has been “unrelenting” over the past two decades, according to a study by the think-tank Reform.
In the mid-1990s, seven per cent of undergraduates were awarded a first class honours. But now there are 40 institutions – a quarter of all universities – where firsts are handed to almost a third of students.
The report’s authors identified 54 institutions which have seen their proportion of firsts double or triple since 2010. Southampton Solent University and the University of the West of Scotland have seen their proportion more than quadruple during the same period.
The report said that there is “considerable evidence” to suggest that university officials fiddling around with “degree algorithms” – which translate the marks achieved by students during their degree into a final classification – has contributed towards grade inflation.
Around half of universities have changed their degree algorithms in the last five years, with their own officials admitting that this has been done “to ensure that they do not disadvantage students in comparison with those in similar institutions”.
The report said: “Research has also identified serious concerns about how these algorithms treat ‘borderline’ cases where a student’s overall mark is close to the boundary of a better degree classification.”
Authors cited an expert who concluded that “universities are essentially massaging the figures, they are changing the algorithms and putting borderline candidates north of the border”.
Another contributing factor to grade inflation identified by the report is the pressure exerted on academics to award higher grades for assignments.
The report pointed to two academics who told last year of the “intense pressure” they faced from university management to gain high scores in the National Student Survey.
“In my university the metric is that you have to get more firsts than 2:1s. This means almost all universities are involved in this game-playing. It is a race to the bottom,” the academics said.
“All universities seem to be experiencing the same managerial pressure to boost student grades. Largely this is done by requiring less student effort over the course of a degree.”
The report recommends that universities are stripped of their power to award degrees and instead, final-year students should sit a new, national assessment for each degree course. The assessments would be designed by professional bodies for degrees such as medicine and law and by learned societies for degrees in the humanities.
Tom Richmond, a senior research fellow at Reform and author of the report, said: “Rocketing degree grade inflation is in no one’s interest. Universities may think easier degrees are a way to attract students, but eventually they will lose currency and students will go elsewhere, even overseas.
“Restoring the currency of degrees would also mean better value for money for the £18 billion that universities receive each year in tuition fees.”
From 1997 to 2009 the proportion of Firsts almost doubled from 7 to 13 per cent, and in just seven years since 2010 the proportion of Firsts has doubled again from 13 to 26 per cent, the report said.
The percentage of students being awarded a 2:1 has also risen from 40 to 49 per cent since 1995, meaning that the proportion of students awarded either a First or 2:1 has increased from 47 to 75 per cent over this period.
A spokesman for Universities UK said: “The independence of universities to decide what they teach and how is at the heart of successful systems around the world, of which the UK is a leading example.
“Different universities teach different curriculums that reflect their specialisms. Universities cannot teach students according to a national curriculum while maintaining the breadth and diversity of courses that students and employers rightly value.”
The spokesman said that Universities UK has been carrying out research about grade inflation, and intends to set out proposals for “effective and sustainable solutions” in a report later this year.