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Beware of UK universities that give too many firsts

Overachievers or over-inflated degrees? Source: Unsplash

Global university rankings are important to international students. So too is the information we get from the internet, from schools’ websites to review sites.

While we are aware of marketing employed within these materials, it can sometimes be hard to spot given that not all information is transparent. In addition, genuine information can be incorrectly understood if the student isn’t aware of its inner workings.

Case in point: the number of first-class degrees UK universities award.

According to the BBC, the proportion of first-class degrees awarded almost doubled between 1997-2009. Since 2010, it rose by a further 26 percent, new data from think-tank Reform has found.

Three-fourths of the student population achieve one of the top two classifications, up significantly from just 47 percent in the mid-1990s.

What lies behind these figures is the growing issue of grade inflation happening in UK campuses. Reform has called it “rocketing” grade inflation that universities need to curb now or risk losing credibility.

Grade inflation refers to the awarding of academic grades that are progressively higher compared to before for work that does not merit such grades. In the UK, this is a decade-long issue affecting exams at many study levels, from GCSEs to undergraduate degrees.

Reform’s latest report shows that not much progress has taken place in terms of solution to this problem. It calls for only the top 10 percent of students to be awarded firsts through the use of national tests to set degree grade benchmarks.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said universities needed to act to protect the value of degrees.

“Students across the country work hard for their results and they deserve grading system that recognises their hard work,” Hinds said.

“That is why this government has put an end to grade inflation in GCSEs and A-levels, and why it is time for universities to do the same.”

University heads, however, do not agree, saying this standardised approach threatens their independence.

What does this all mean for the prospective international student? 

Given this report, it’s now more important than ever to dig deep into the mechanism behind your chosen institution’s method of awarding degrees.

Not everyone should be getting firsts. Source: Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

Currently, grades are up to the university to decide, which critics say opens the system to abuse as universities have incentives to boost grades and improve their ranking positions.

Take note, however, that there exists evidence to suggest that students at UK universities deserve these higher grades sine improved outcomes in primary, secondary and further education means they’re more prepared to succeed at university-level. There has also been a number of changes in subject offerings, course content and student characteristics. Greater female enrolment means better grades as women are 5 percent more likely to get good degrees.

Nonetheless, the UK’s Office for Students has been tasked to look into the significant rise in awarded grades over the last few years.

Given the above, international applicants should definitely take heed of additional indicators when researching which UK university to attend, such as the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (or TEF) results as well as other holistic markers such as student satisfaction rates, university review sites, alumni testimonials, etc.

It’s no easy task and we wish you all the luck.

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