Surge in graduates picking up first-class degrees

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The number of students graduating with a first-class degree has more than doubled in 10 years, with one in six now gaining top honours, figures show.

Official statistics reveal that a record 61,600 graduates left university with a first last summer, with the numbers soaring in the past five years.

There has also been a rise in the numbers of students gaining an upper-second, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

The hikes are likely to spark fresh concerns about grade inflation.

The latest figures show that two-thirds of students left university in 2012 with a first or 2.1. Of these, 15.8 per cent – 61,605 students – gained the highest honours.

This is a 45 per cent increase from 2008, when 41,150 students got a first, and up 136 per cent from 2002, when 26,100 graduates received the highest degree grade.

The 200-year-old degree classification system is “barely fit for purpose,” according to the head of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Carl Gilleard said the system is being used more and more often by employers as an “automatic cut-off point”.

“Over three quarters of AGR members require graduates to have at least a 2:1, yet it is widely accepted that the degree classification system is barely fit for purpose,” he said.

“As a recruitment tool it is a blunt and inconsistent measure, and so it is a shame it has become so heavily relied upon by employers.”

Mr Gilleard said the AGR backed the new school-style Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) – a detailed record of a student’s university achievement, which is given alongside a final degree award.

It can include more information on academic courses, such as module marks, as well as details of volunteering work, any prizes a student has won, additional qualifications that can be verified by the university and any other positions held, such as the captaincy of the hockey team.

It was disclosed last year that more than half of UK universities have confirmed they are to bring in the electronic record, similar to the reports children are given at the end of the school year, with more expected to follow.

HESA’s new figures show that there has been a 16 per cent increase in the number of students obtaining a degree between 2008 and 2012.