The Office for Students has today published an analysis of changes in degree classifications between 2010-11 and 2016-17, presenting findings at both sector and individual university level. The analysis finds the significant increase in the proportion of first and upper second class degrees cannot be fully explained by the factors linked with graduate attainment included in our analysis.

The percentage of first and upper second class degrees awarded has increased from 67 per cent in 2010-11 to 78 per cent in 2016-17, while the percentage of first-class degrees has increased from 16 per cent to 27 per cent.

Commenting on the report, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

'It is fundamentally important – for students, graduates and employers – that degrees hold their value over time. This report shows starkly that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11. This spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.

'We absolutely recognise how hard students work for their degrees, and accept that improved teaching and student support, and increases in the qualifications students gain before university, could explain some of the increase in grades. However, even accounting for prior attainment and student demographics we still find significant unexplained grade inflation.

'The sector must quickly get to grips with this issue. I welcome the recent launch of a consultation from the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment which proposes a range of measures to be taken forward. Working collaboratively, universities and other higher education providers hold the key to solving this problem. If they do not take action, we will use our powers to drive change.'

Alistair Jarvis100x100Commenting on findings from the OfS analysis of changes in degree classifications, Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

Universities are already taking steps to tackle grade inflation. The report we recently published outlines a number of measures to protect the value of qualifications over time that are currently being consulted on by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment. It is essential that the public has full confidence in the value of a degree.

The report also presents individual findings for 148 universities and other higher education providers. In relation to first class degree attainment:

  • 52 per cent of providers (77) show a statistically significant unexplained increase relative to both the sector and their own level in 2010-11
  • a further 19 per cent of providers (28) show a statistically significant unexplained level of attainment above that of the sector level in 2010-11, but no significant change relative to their own level in 2010-11
  • another 13 per cent of providers (19) show a statistically significant unexplained increase relative to their own level in 2010-11, but attainment not significantly above the sector level in 2010-11.

Nicola Dandridge concluded:

'This analysis may make uncomfortable reading for some universities. It shows that individual and collective steps are needed to ensure that students can be confident that they will leave higher education with a qualification that is reliable, respected, and helps ensure they are ready for life after graduation.'

The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Our aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

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Our analysis finds that, across the sector as a whole, 11.6 percentage points of the increase in first and upper second class degrees awarded are unexplained by changes in the graduate population.

See the report and data tables.

See more details about the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment’s consultation

We used statistical modelling of individual graduate data to predict expected patterns in degree classification between 2010-11 to 2016-17, taking the following factors into account:

  • the provider at which the graduate was registered
  • year of graduation
  • subject studied
  • qualifications on entry
  • age
  • disability
  • ethnicity
  • gender
  • Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) quintile.

Full details of the model used are provided in the report.

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