Decline in first-class grades after pandemic inflation crackdown

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The number of first-class degrees awarded has fallen for the first time following a crackdown on grade inflation during the Covid pandemic.

It is the first time since its establishment in 1993 that HESA has registered a decline in the number of first class diplomas awarded.

However, the rate is still higher than before the pandemic.

It comes after universities in England pledged to reverse degree inflation last July, following the introduction of policies to mitigate the impact of Covid disruption, including open book exams.

Universities UK and GuildHE pledged to bring the share of upper second and first class degrees back to pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

In 2021/22, 32 percent of undergraduate degrees received first-class honors, a drop of four percentage points from 36 percent from the previous year, according to the HESA.

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However, in 2021/2022, 46 percent of students achieved a higher second-class degree, the same percentage as in 2020/21.

The total number of students in higher education increased by four percent to 2,862,620, while the number of first-year students increased by two percent.

Susan Lapworth, the director of the Office for Students (OfS), welcomed the reduction of first class degrees.

The OfS had previously warned that grade inflation could negatively affect students – a warning echoed by Michelle Donelan, then education minister.

‘Welcome drop to pre-pandemic levels’

Ms Lapworth said: “Today’s figures show a welcome drop back to pre-pandemic levels in the share of first class degrees awarded to students graduating in the 2021-22 academic year.

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“Last year, members of Universities UK and GuildHE committed to tackling the rising share of first class and senior second degrees and pledged to return to pre-pandemic levels of assessment.

“We welcomed that commitment and will continue to monitor ranking trends to understand factors that may contribute to industry performance.

“If left unchecked, grade inflation could erode public confidence and it is important that the OfS can step in if it is concerned about the credibility of credentials.

“Universities and colleges understand that they need to ensure that the degrees they award are credible and reflect student achievement. This is the way to maintain the trust of students, employers and the general public in higher education qualifications.”

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HESA statistics released on Thursday also show a significant change in where foreign students come from.

The number of non-EU domiciled first-year students increased by 32 percent compared to 2020/21, with the number of students from India increasing by 50 percent.

In total there were 350,325 non-EU domiciled newcomers in the first year, of which 126,535 were from India.

By contrast, the number of newcomers residing in the EU fell by 53 percent.

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