UK university abstracts appearance up to fivefold acceleration in capital degrees

British universities have been handing out higher-class degrees at an unprecedented rate over the past decade, according to detailed figures released by the higher education regulator.

The figures, from a selection of universities taking part in the government’s latest teaching excellence framework, known as Tef3, show huge variation, with at least one university issuing five times as many first-class degrees last year as it did a decade before.

The figures confirm previous signs that universities have been upping the proportion of firsts and upper seconds awarded in recent years, which many within the sector blame on pressure from league tables and from students themselves.

The group of 20 universities were required to submit detailed records of degree classifications awarded since 2007, and annually since 2014, in an effort to identify “rigour and stretch” of students at each institution.

The figures show that in the 2006-7 academic year at the University of Wolverhampton, 175 students (5% of the total) were awarded first-class degrees. In 2016-17, 973 students (28% of the total) were awarded firsts.

More established universities were not immune to the trend. The University of Liverpool, a member of the Russell Group, more than doubled the proportion of students awarded firsts in the same period, from 12% to 27%. In 2016-17, 73% of Liverpool students graduated with either a firsts or 2:1, compared with 61% a decade before.

In its submission to the Tef, Liverpool attributed the rise to recruiting more able students through a partnership with a Chinese university.

“These are academically the most able students from the Chinese secondary education system, with attainment that places them in the top 1.5% of the Gaokao [school exam], and one-third of them graduate with a first-class degree,” Liverpool said.

“XJTLU [Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University] students now account for one-quarter of our graduating cohort and have driven the growth in our overall figures. The increase is not due to inappropriate grade inflation; those subjects where the rate has increased appreciably are those where most of our XJTLU students are based.”

Some universities appeared willing to resist the trend. At Warwick University, the proportion of first-class degrees rose from 22% in 2006-7 to 27% a decade later, and the proportion of 2:1s remained the same at 54%.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that in 2016-17, 26% of students gained a first-class honours degree from British universities, compared with 18% in 2012-13. Surrey University awarded firsts to 41% of its graduates last year, Oxford 33% and Cambridge 32%.