16/01/2014 10:35 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

So Now Degrees Are Getting Easier Too? HESA Report Reveals Fifth Of Students Gain First

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The hikes are likely to spark fresh concerns about grade inflation (file pic)

An increasing number of students are graduating from university with a first-class degree, with nearly one in five gaining top honours, according to official figures.

The statistics, which also show the number of students enrolling at university dropped by 17% between 2011 and 2013, are bound to spark fresh concerns about grade inflation.

Thousands more UK graduates gained a first last year compared to 2012, while the proportion gaining the highest result has almost doubled in a decade.

In total, almost seven in 10 students scored at least a 2.1 in their degree last year, statistics published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show.

The latest figures show that 68% of UK students left university in 2013 with a first or 2.1.

Around 18.4% - 69,625 graduates - gained a first, compared to 16.9%, or 61,605 graduates, who got the highest degree classification in 2012.

It means that an extra 8,020 people received a first-class degree last summer compared to the year before.

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

Ten years ago, in 2003, some 28,635 people - just over one in 10 (11%) of degrees classified - obtained a first, while five years ago in 2009, around 14% achieved this result.

Graduate recruitment expert Martin Birchall said that employers were no longer simply looking for a decent degree from job applicants.

"A degree result is a marker but it hasn't been the thing that gets you a graduate job for a long time," he said.

"This is the age old debate about are we getting smarter or are qualifications getting easier?

"From an employer's perspective, university degree classifications can be a good indication of someone's academic ability, but when students apply for a graduate job it is now only about a fifth of the equation that recruiters are looking for, they're also looking at the work experience people have had and the business and personal skills they've built up whilst at university.

"Our latest research shows that three-quarters of Britain's top 100 employers now say that graduates need at least a 2.1 to join their graduate programmes, but that's often more about reducing the huge number of applications they receive, rather than a minimum standard needed to do the graduate jobs on offer.

Mr Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, added: "Given the very wide range of entry standards across the UK's universities, increasing numbers of employers now look at A- level results too, to build up a more complete picture of graduates' academic abilities."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK said: "Looking across all degree results, it is recognised that the proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded has increased marginally in recent years, reflecting increases in entry qualifications and developments in learning methods."

A number of universities are now trialling the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) which is a more detailed record of a student's achievements given alongside a final degree award, or a US-style grade point average system, she said.

The HESA statistics also show that overall student numbers fell by 6% between 2011/12 and 2012/13 - the first year that students paid fees of up to £9,000.

The number of first year undergraduates fell by 17% and the number of overseas students from outside the EU dropped by 1%.

There was a large drop in the number of Indian students coming to the UK to study, with figures down 25%, the data showed.

Ms Dandridge said: "Despite growing demand globally, international recruitment figures in the UK over the last few years have not done justice, either to the global success of the UK's universities, or the sector's ability to tap into this substantial growth market.

"At the same time, competitor countries have seen rises in international student numbers.

"In particular, the decline in the number of students, notably from India, enrolled in taught postgraduate degrees is of concern.

"More recently, however, there are some positive developments, with the publication of the UK government's international education strategy and the British Council's prediction that the UK could attract an extra 126,000 international students over the next decade."