By Luke Payne
New analysis by Palatinate has revealed the proportion of Durham graduates receiving first class honours rose from 18% in 2009/10 to a record 43% last year. Last year, 95% of Durham graduates secured a 2:1 or above.
In the past decade, there has been a consistent upwards trend in the proportion of Durham first class honours graduates equivalent to a year-on-year increase of 10%.
Rates have increased in every department, with Computer Science experiencing the highest increases, where 71% of graduates received a first last year. The Office for Students calculated a UK average of firsts in 2018/19 at just 30% of graduates.
In early March, Palatinate revealed that first class honours degrees had drastically increased in light of measures to mitigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic such as online examinations. However, this new analysis indicates that this increase is part of a well-established long-term trend.
Between 2003/04 and 2009/10 the average proportion of first class honours awards was 17% of all graduates. During these years, the proportion varied only between 16% and 18%. Subsequent years have shown increases consistent with grade inflation.
The increase in first class honours awards has coincided with a fall in the proportion of upper-second and lower-second class honours degree awards. Upper-second class (2.1) honours degrees have declined from 64% of graduates to 52% since peaking in 2010/11.
More significantly, the proportion of lower-second class (2.2) awards has been falling since 2003/04 from 21% of graduates to only 4% last year.
The conclusions of the analysis indicate that lower class degree awards appear to be being squeezed out to facilitate an increase in higher classifications. Beginning firstly with 2.2 awards, which have fallen to seemingly increase the number of 2.1 awards until 2010. Thereafter, both second class classifications have fallen, whilst there’s been a significant increase in the proportion of first class awards from that year onwards.
No faculty appears immune from the trend. Last year, for the first time, over half of science faculty graduates received first class honours degrees. Ten years ago, it was 22%. For Arts and Humanities the proportion grew from 19% to 39% of graduates over the same period.
Based on the three-year rolling averages, grade inflation appears to vary considerably between some academic departments. History, Chemistry and Mathematics appear to have experienced the lowest levels of grade inflation. Whereas Education and Computer Science have experienced some of the highest levels.
The proportion of History graduates receiving first class honours has risen by an average of only five percentage points over the past 15 years. Conversely, the proportion of Computer Science graduates receiving first class honours has risen 46 percentage points from 19% of graduates to 65%.
Analysis of taught masters programmes has indicated that the phenomenon appears to be only affecting undergraduate courses. Over the same period, the proportion of merit and distinction awards for taught postgraduate courses has remained consistent.
In 2017, Professor Alan Smithers, now Director for Education and Employment Research at The University of Buckingham, said “Students like to have top-class degrees and may choose universities on that basis”. He believed that for marketing purposes, Universities “have every incentive” to increase the number of top degree classifications.
In November, The Office for Students published an analysis of undergraduate awards to investigate grade inflation at UK Universities between 2010/11 and 2018/19. It found that on average, the proportion of graduates receiving 1st class honours has risen by 14 percentage points from 16% to 30%.
In response to the report, The Department for Education spokesperson said “It is unacceptable that the proportion of firsts continues to rise, despite repeated calls for action. Awarding powers should be used responsibly and we expect the Office for Students to take action where this is not the case.”
In response to Palatinate’s findings, Professor Alan Houston, Vice-Provost (Education), Durham University, said: “Our awards reflect the quality of our students and the research-led education they receive at Durham. We admit exceptional undergraduate and postgraduate students and enable each and every one of them to achieve their best throughout their time with us.
“External examiners at all levels 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 alumni are also some of the most sought-after nationally, demonstrating that employers and postgraduate recruiters place high value in a Durham degree.”
Image: Durham University