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The proportion of UK undergraduates achieving a first-class degree fell for the first time on record last year, new figures show.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) said the fall was likely caused by a return to in-person exams after the Covid-19 pandemic and by pressure on English providers applied by the Office for Students (OfS), the sector regulator.
A decrease towards pre-pandemic levels was welcomed by the OfS, which said unchecked grade inflation could “erode public trust”.
The new Hesa figures show that 32.1 per cent of first-degree students were awarded a first-class honours classification in 2021-22 – down from the peak of 36.4 per cent the year before and the first ever fall on record.
The proportion getting firsts was still well above the 28.2 per cent who were awarded them in 2018-19, before the pandemic.
The share receiving a 2:1 increased slightly over the past year, to 46.5 per cent.
“No detriment” policies designed to keep students from being disadvantaged by the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had previously led to a sharp increase in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded.
Although most of these policies were discontinued in 2020-21, online examinations continued, and many providers instituted policies to mitigate the ongoing difficulties faced by students.
The OfS raised concerns about pandemic-era grade inflation becoming “baked in” and in September initiated regulatory investigations of three providers over “sharp increases” in the number of first-class and upper second-class degrees they have awarded.
UK universities have pledged to bring the proportion of students achieving “upper” degrees back to 2019 levels by 2023.
Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, lead policy and research analyst at Hesa, said many exams returned to in-person format last year, and as a result, some students “may have struggled to achieve the marks which they might have achieved in an online examination”.
She said that guidance from the OfS may also have had an impact. “Providers were under pressure to ensure that the high grades awarded during the first years of the pandemic did not become a permanent fixture of UK higher education,” she said.
The share of bachelor’s students being awarded a 2:2 rose from 14.5 per cent in 2020-21 to 17.3 per cent last year.
And 4 per cent of undergraduates received a third-class honours last year – up from 3 per cent the year before.
Both these rises were the largest percentage-point increases on record.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said the figures showed a “welcome decrease back towards pre-pandemic levels” in the proportion of firsts awarded.
“Left unchecked, grade inflation can erode public trust, and it is important that the OfS can and does intervene where it has concerns about the credibility of degrees,” she added.
“Universities and colleges understand that they must ensure that the degrees they award are credible and properly represent students’ achievement.
“This is the way to maintain the confidence of students, employers and the wider public in higher education qualifications.”
The figures show that a total of 2.3 million students enrolled in UK higher education in 2021-22 – up 4 per cent year-on-year, though the number of undergraduates fell by 2 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of students starting a postgraduate course rose 9 per cent from 2020-21.
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