Are Degrees Getting Easier? Number Of University Students Gaining Firsts Doubles

The number of students graduating with a first-class degree has more than doubled in 10 years, with one in six now gaining top honours, figures show.

Official statistics reveal that a record 61,600 graduates left university with a first last summer, with the numbers soaring in the past five years.

There has also been a rise in the numbers of students gaining an upper-second, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

The hikes are likely to spark fresh concerns about grade inflation.

The latest figures show that two-thirds of students left university in 2012 with a first or 2.1.

Of these, 15.8% - 61,605 students - gained the highest honours.

This is a 45% increase from 2008, when 41,150 students got a first, and up 136% from 2002, when 26,100 graduates received the highest degree grade.

There has been a rise in the student population in the last 10 years, but the number of those obtaining a first appears to haven risen further.

The 200-year-old degree classification system is "barely fit for purpose," according to the head of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Carl Gilleard said that the system is being used more and more often by employers as an "automatic cut-off point".

"Over three quarters of AGR members require graduates to have at least a 2:1, yet it is widely accepted that the degree classification system is barely fit for purpose," he said.

"As a recruitment tool it is a blunt and inconsistent measure, and so it is a shame it has become so heavily relied upon by employers."

Gilleard said that the AGR backed the new school-style Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear).

The Hear is a detailed record of a student's university achievement, which is given alongside a final degree award.

It can include more information on academic courses, such as module marks, as well as details of volunteering work, any prizes a student has won, additional qualifications that can be verified by the university and any other positions held, such as the captaincy of the hockey team.

It was disclosed last year that more than half of UK universities have confirmed they are to bring in the electronic record, similar to the reports children are given at the end of the school year, with more expected to follow.

Gilleard said: "Whilst the Hear is new territory for employers, it is one that the AGR believes will offer many benefits - providing employers with a far richer and broader range of information on their business's potential employees.

"I have noticed how it is acting as a catalyst for change, with students better able to articulate what they have to offer to employers and considering the skills they have developed more carefully."

HESA's new figures show that there has been a 16% rise in the number of students obtaining a degree between 2008 and 2012.

The statistics also show that 68% of the degrees gained by women in 2012 were a first or 2.1, compared with 63% for men.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said "The proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded has increased in recent years, reflecting increases in entry levels. Performance in A-level and other examinations have improved, so it is unsurprising that degree results would also show an improvement.

"However, the sector has recognised for some time that the current degree classification system is a blunt instrument, hence the recommendation last year that, from autumn 2012, all students entering undergraduate degrees will leave with a Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), as well as a degree certificate."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said: "We are encouraging universities to implement the Higher Education Achievement Report because it has long been acknowledged that the degree classification doesn't give a detailed description of student achievement. This gives employers a much fuller description of students' skills and expertise."

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