Durham University awarded 28.5% more first-class degrees at the end of the 2019-20 academic year compared to the previous year, statistics on the University website reveal.
41% of those graduating last year received a first-class classification, compared to 31.9% in 2018-19. In raw numbers, this works out to 1,742 first class degrees awarded in 2019-20 and 1,370 in 2018-19.
Since more students received first-class classifications, proportionally fewer received upper-second class degrees (2:1s) – 50.4% in 2019-20, compared to 54% the previous year. Lower-second class (2:2s) were also reduced from 295 students in 2018-19 to 182 in 2019-20, representing a 36.8% decrease.
The increase in first-class degrees is likely to partly owe to the adoption of the ‘safety net’ policy in April 2020 which sought to mitigate against the adverse effects of the pandemic on student learning outcomes.
The policy, which was announced after a petition calling for its adoption accrued 3,500 signatures, stipulated that upon completing their final exams, students would receive two separate marks – one which factored in their assessments completed during the pandemic, and one which did not.
Students were awarded their degree based on the higher value. As a consequence, assessments which were affected by the pandemic could only raise overall degree classification.
Other measures included the majority adoption of 48- hour exams, and as such, these were mostly open-book. One requirement was that students pass their exam in order to gain their degree.
Professor Alan Houston, ViceProvost (Education), Durham University, said: “Our awards reflect the quality of our students and the research-led education they receive at Durham. We admit exceptional students and enable each and every one of them to achieve their best throughout their time with us.
“External examiners consistently commend the rigour of our degrees. We are committed to maintaining this, including during these challenging times, and are scrupulous in decisions made regarding our degree classifications.
“Our students are fully deserving of the high grades which they work hard for and last year our external examiners consistently praised the high quality of student work.
“Our graduates are also some of the most sought-after nationally, demonstrating that employers and postgraduate recruiters place high value in a Durham degree classification.
“We fully recognise the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This is why we have introduced a range of measures for 2021, drawing upon our experience last year and working in collaboration with Durham Students’ Union, to provide an academic safety net for students while upholding the integrity of their degrees.”
Last month, like last year, the University announced the adoption of a series of measures to mitigate against the effects of the pandemic.
These include students being able to submit an academic impact statement for dissertations, major projects, or other key assessments if they have been adversely affected by academic factors.
It also means that students will not be required to provide evidence when requesting a seven-day extension for submitting summative coursework. Additionally, if a student’s average mark is five or more points below the previous year, their record will be scrutinised for Covid-19 effects.
Prof. Houston went on to say that the measures have been amended to “support students fairly while upholding the integrity of their degrees,” while also recognising “individual circumstances, including the mental and physical barriers to study, faced by many.”
The increase represents the most significant grade inflation since at least 2003-4, which is as far back as public records go, and some have shared concerns that the rise in so-called ‘good’ degrees (a 2:1 or first) devalues Durham degrees.
One student told Palatinate, “Grade inflation hurts students. Now a 2:1 is expected from you. Employers in the job market won’t take a 2:1 seriously unless you have the accompanying extracurricular work experience and personality to fit the company. So unless students kill themselves going the extra mile to help them stand out, your average grade is simply not good enough anymore.
“And it’s not only affecting our job applications, but of course this impacts our mental health. When everyone is getting the higher grades, you obviously need to work harder to compete with them, else you see yourself and are seen as a failure.”
Nailah Haque, Durham Students’ Union’s Undergraduate Academic Officer, told Palatinate: “I personally don’t think we should worry about grade inflation, especially if it’s at the expense of students.
“I do think the increase in firsts that we saw last year was because students were able to perform better in online exams for whatever reason – not being in pressurised environments like an exam hall, having more time to prep or just knowing you have more time than say two to three hours to complete the assessment.
“I think last year’s measures definitely provided some sort of reassurance to students that exam boards and the University were considering how students had been impacted by Covid-19 and how this could have implicated their grades.”
Image: Amana Moore