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More students leaving university with first-class degrees

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A new study has shown that at least a quarter of students are graduating with a first-class degree at a third of UK universities, compared to just 8% of universities five years ago.

Just over half of last year’s graduates left university with a 2:1 and a fifth with a lower second, or 2:2.

The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), showed the proportion of firsts rise by over 10% at over 40 universities since 2011. The University of Surrey more than doubled its share to 41.2%, while at the University of East Anglia, the proportion tripled from just one-eighth to 34%.

Of the Russell Group universities, Durham saw the biggest increase of firsts, rising from 17.8% to 30.2% of students, while Oxford’s share jumped from 29% to 33.2%. Birmingham saw a 12.1-point increase to 29.8%, while Coventry’s proportion rose approximately half as much, from 17.2% to nearly a quarter of graduates.

More than a quarter of Russell Group students received firsts, compared to 24% nationally.

This follows another report from HESA last January, which showed that 73% of students in the UK graduated with a 2:1 or above in 2016, compared to only 60% in 2011. The study found that only 5% of students left university with a third.

Back in 1994 — HESA’s earliest statistics — only 7% of students left higher education with first-class degrees.

You have to take into account the increased competitiveness of the job market and the pressure for students to walk into high-paying graduate schemes after their degree.

Universities have cited rising entry standards and better student-staff ratios as explanations for the change, while some have pointed towards the “knock-on effect” of employers demanding a minimum 2:1 standard.

Last December, Oxford graduate Faiz Siddiqui sued the university for £1million over being awarded a 2:1 rather than a first 16 years ago, which he claims damaged his career prospects.

Juliette Robinson, who graduated this year with a first from Warwick in French and Hispanic studies, commented: “You have to take into account the increased competitiveness of the job market and the pressure for students to walk into high-paying graduate schemes after their degree.”

Jenny Turvey, who left with a first in French and Italian, added: “The main pressure on me was from myself, which I guess is an extension of societal expectations. The pressure of student debt is overwhelming sometimes.”

There’s more resources and more motivation than in the past, but degrees are as difficult as they’ve ever been.

“Getting a first is insanely difficult and I still think there’s a huge element of luck to it. It’s months of stress and slogging away. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

“The idea that degrees are easier because marks are getting better is utterly ridiculous. Young people are under so much pressure today, so they work harder. There’s more resources and more motivation than in the past, but degrees are as difficult as they’ve ever been.”

A study by The Boar last year found that 95% of humanities students graduated in 2015 with a first or 2:1, compared to four-fifths of science students and 83% of social scientists. In 1970, only 39% of students left with a first or 2:1.

The study found the male students typically received a higher proportion of firsts, while last year, 20.3% of black and minority ethnic (BME) students at Warwick passed with firsts compared to 35.5% of white students.

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