Spike in first-class degrees: Grade inflation or something less sinister?
Is it grade inflation, or are students getting smarter? Source: Shutterstock

University grades appear to be much higher than the past, with reports showing that more students are graduating with first-class degrees, fuelling fears that grade inflation is a widespread problem.

Earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that the UK saw the highest number of first-class degrees on record handed out last year, with 28 percent of students who completed their undergraduate studies walking away with a first.

Meanwhile, in the US, The Wall Street Journal reported that almost half of students who graduated from Lehigh University, Princeton University and the University of Southern California in 2018 did so with Latin honours, while Times Higher Education reported that GPAs at four-year colleges are rising at the rate of 0.1 points per decade and have been doing so for 30 years.  

A recent article by The Times reported that in the UK, hundreds of students with the worst A-levels have gone to get first-class degrees each year, fuelling fears of grade inflation across universities.

According to the analysis, over 2,000 students who had achieved three D grades or lower ended up being awarded first-class degrees at university, while 40 universities “awarded firsts to at least a quarter of those with the lowest A-level grades”.

Last month, Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: “Universities must end the steep-rise of ‘unjustifiable’ first class degrees to maintain the UK university sector’s world-class reputation.”

But is it right to suggest that the reason behind the rise of first-class degree recipients lies purely with grade inflation, or are other factors at play?

Many readers, including PhD students and educators, took to Twitter to debunk the notion of student potential and A-level grades.

Public historian Greg Jenner opined: “Or… A level students who struggled with illness/mental health/bullying/peer pressure/unstable home life went to university and were able to change their story with the support of new friends and good teachers? just a thought”.

Daniel Tinnion said: “I pretty much got D’s in every A Level, yet I’m starting my PhD this year and have grown massively since I took them…completely wrong perspective”.

Meanwhile, Dr Anders Ingram said: “Like many others I got a first at Uni through hard work and application after doing less well at school (largely through being severely bullied). So many reasons school is difficult for many”.

Speaking to The Times, Alan Smithers, Director of Education and Employment at Buckingham University, noted that “degrees were subjective and more wide-ranging than A-levels but universities were ‘very keen’ to give out good grades”.

Higher Education Policy Institute  (HEPI) Director Nick Hillman defended the awarding of some first-class degrees to those with poor A-levels, saying: “If you are doing a jewellery-design course or hoping to become a photographer, it is strange to regard top-notch A-level results as the key indicator of future success. Moreover, if you have a tough background you may have poor school results but lots of potential.”

Meanwhile, Office for Students Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said: “We should not be tempted to view A-level grades as a permanent reflection of a student’s potential. However, our own research on this issue found there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation in recent years, and that this applied across all levels of prior attainment.”

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