Record numbers of students are now leaving university with top degrees, with almost one in four graduates (24%) achieving a first.
Nearly three quarters of students (73%) graduated with at least a 2:1 degree last year compared to 66% in 2011/12, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures.
But the figures have sparked a fresh debate about whether the centuries-old degree classification system is still fit for purpose, the Press Association reported.
Graduate recruitment expert Martin Birchall said it was “very hard” to understand why more and more students were achieving top grades.
“Degrees are not benchmarked as a national standard, so there is no way of telling whether individual universities are becoming more generous in the degrees they are awarding or whether standards are genuinely rising,” the High Fliers Research managing director said.
HESA figures show that only 5% of students now graduate with a third, while around one fifth gain a lower second (2:2) degree.
In recent years, a number of employers have stopped asking for specific degree standards.
In 2015, accountancy firm Ernst & Young - one of the UK’s biggest graduate recruiters - announced it was removing the degree classification from its entry criteria, saying there was “no evidence” success at university correlates with achievement in later life.
“Diversity has become a real issue for many employers and they’re keen to have as broad a spread of applicants for their graduate programmes as possible,” Birchall added.
“That means they don’t necessarily want to cut out graduates who did not get a first or a 2:1 but have CVs that are jam-packed with other skills and experiences that may be more relevant in the workplace.
“A number of employers have realised that if they use a blunt cut-off such as a 2:1 or above, they’re missing out on some great people, so degree classification has become less important.”
Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman said: “The situation does need monitoring very closely. There are valid questions about whether growing competition between universities is encouraging grade inflation and also whether the external examiner system is fit for purpose in every respect.
“After all, it is in no-one’s interests - not government, employers or universities - for people to think students are having an easier ride than in the past.
“But it would still be wrong to see the figures as proof of a crisis because the controversial £9,000 tuition fees mean facilities have got better, while students seem to be drinking less and working more.”