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Universities award record number of firsts


The Telegraph

A record one-in-seven students graduated from university with a first-class degree last year, sparking fresh fears over “grade inflation”.

Official figures show more than 43,000 firsts were awarded by institutions in the UK – almost double the number a decade ago.

At the same time, almost two-thirds of graduates gained at least a 2:1 in 2009 as results increased for the fifth straight year.

The disclosure – in figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency – come amid plans for a drastic overhaul of traditional degree classifications.

Universities are currently trialling a graduate “report card”, which is intended to represent a more accurate picture of students’ achievements, after admitting the existing 200-year-old system had “outgrown its usefulness”.

The Higher Education Achievement Report – a six-page document listing information about students’ extra-curricular activities and marks in individual modules – could be awarded to all graduates by 2012.

Calls for reform have been fuelled by a series of university whistleblowers who claim external examiners have been “leaned on” to boost grades.

In a 2008 speech, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former head of standards at the University of London, said lecturers were under pressure to "mark positively" and turn a blind eye to plagiarism - ensuring universities climb national and international rankings.

But vice-chancellors have rejected claims that a rise in the number of first-class degrees is evidence of easier courses or underhand tactics.

According to the latest figures, 14 per cent of students gained a first last year compared with 13 per cent in 2008 and just 7.7 per cent in 1997. Some 62 per cent of students gained a first or 2:1, another one percentage point rise compared with a year earlier.

Last year, there were 333,720 first-time degree graduates, down slightly from the 334,890 students leaving university in 2008.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "There is little doubt universities have an incentive to award more degrees in higher classes to improve their position in league tables."

Figures show more than one in five students given a university qualification last year was from outside the UK. Foreign students can be charged more than those from Britain and other European countries, making them increasingly attractive to institutions currently facing budget cuts.

Some 41 per cent of final year students were also awarded a degree in a science-based subject – seen as vital to Britain’s economic recovery.

David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said: “It is critical to our future growth that we have the graduates with the skills to drive the new industries and jobs of the future which is precisely why the Government enabled an additional 10,000 student places in these subjects last year.”


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