The proportion of students in England awarded a first-class degree has more than doubled in a decade, according to data from the Office for Students (OfS).
Analysis by the university watchdog found that around 36% of students were awarded a first in 2019-20, and 38% in 2020-21.
In 2010-11, the respective figure was just under 16%.
The data on degree classes was based on 143 institutions, looking at the outcomes for 266,705 graduates.
The OfS said that more than half of the first-class degrees awarded in 2021 could not be explained by “observable factors” such as prior results or social background of students.
Susan Lapworth, the OfS’s interim chief executive, said: “Unmerited grade inflation is bad for students, graduates and employers, and damages the reputation of English higher education.”
The OfS found that around six in 10 first-class degrees awarded in the 2020-21 academic year were unexplainable after taking external factors into account and comparing to the 2010-11 cohort.
It noted that “no detriment” polices, designed to prevent students from being unfairly disadvantaged by university Covid responses, may partially explain the rise.
However, the OfS found that the rates of first-class honours had risen for all students since 2010-11, with a pre-pandemic report also finding that nearly half of the firsts awarded in 2018-19 were unexplained.
Higher education watchdogs have warned that the trend has been a “real credibility issue for the sector for some time”, and that “the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to allow a decade of unexplained grade inflation to be baked into the system”.
The OfS will publish more details on how it intends to investigate grade inflation shortly, according to Ms Lapworth.
“Unjustifiable increases in the proportion of top degrees being awarded threaten to undermine the value of UK degrees.”
–Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan
Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said: “Just as Ofqual has set out its approach to grading, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023 following a transition stage next year, it is important that universities do the same to restore pre-pandemic grading.
“Unjustifiable increases in the proportion of top degrees being awarded threaten to undermine the value of UK degrees.
“We expect the Office for Students to challenge registered providers with an excessive proportion of top degrees being awarded.”
In response to the analysis, the National Union of Students (NUS) suggested that the watchdog wanted to “punish” high-achievers who had worked hard to attain their grades.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said the policies helped universities “understand and provide the support that students needed to thrive and succeed during an unprecedented situation”.
“Universities cannot use grade inflation as a way to punish students who have worked hard, and received access to better quality teaching from excellent staff, and are achieving in their education because of this.”
Prof Steve West CBE, the president of Universities UK, said: “Universities remain committed to addressing grade inflation” by “reviewing the degree classification system and the way final grades are calculated”.
He added: “The Office for Students has rightly designed a regulatory system based on the principle that the grades a student enters university with should not limit expectations of what they can achieve, and this logic must also apply to degree classification.
“Universities have been asked to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to succeed at university. We believe the OfS must be careful not to assume that students with lower entry grades, typically from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot achieve first-class degrees.”