Jump in ‘firsts’ awarded at Durham has been largest of any Russell Group university

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Durham University has overseen the largest increase in first-class degrees than any other Russell Group university, according to figures published this week.

The findings, revealed in an investigation by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), show that the number of first-class honours awarded to Durham graduates has jumped from 17.8% in 2011 to 30.2% in 2016.

This increase was the highest out of all Russell Group universities, but was topped by institutions outside the Group such as the Universities of Surrey and East Anglia, which both saw an increase of around 22% in the same time period.

Durham University has been part of a larger trend of apparent grade inflation, triggered, some argue, by the tripling of tuition fees five years ago. The HESA figures show that a third of universities awarded a first to over a quarter of their students last year, a significant increase on the 8% of institutions that did so in 2012.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has suggested that this increase may be due to the fact that “schools have got better” and are more able to meet higher entry requirements.

He also pointed to a rise in work ethic as an explanatory factor: “As you wander round universities, the student union bars are empty […] and working environments are full”.

Alan Houston, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) at Durham University, likewise argues that the rise in degree outcomes has been positively correlated with higher entry grades demanded by the University.

The rise in competitiveness in the job market has also been cited as a reason for the increase in higher degree scores over the last decade or so, with more employers demanding at least a 2:1 result. The HESA research shows that whilst 60% of degrees were 2:1s or firsts in the 2011-12 academic year, this has now increased to 75% for 2015-16.

However, other figures, such as Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham, have taken quite a different angle in their explanation.

“Students like to have top-class degrees and may choose universities on that basis,” Professor Smithers says, going on to reflect that because of this marketing angle, universities have increased the number of firsts awarded, for “they have every incentive to do so”.

Photograph by Aaron Hawkins via Flickr and Creative Commons

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