How many first-class degrees are being awarded by North East universities?

The proportion of firsts handed out by UK universities has soared. Picture: PA.
The proportion of firsts handed out by UK universities has soared. Picture: PA.

The proportion of firsts handed out by UK universities has soared, with a third of institutions now grading at least one in four degrees with the top honour.

In some cases, the proportion has more than doubled in five years, according to Press Association analysis of official data.

With students now paying up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees, almost all universities and colleges are giving out a higher proportion of firsts than they were in 2010/11.

The findings are likely to spark fresh debate about grade inflation, and whether the centuries-old degree classification system is still fit for purpose.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: "Some rise is not unreasonable, given that schools have got better and some universities have increased their entry tariffs so they're getting better quality students."

But he suggested the impact of university league tables could be fuelling grade inflation.

Figures from universities in the North East

The below table reads, from left to right, name of institution, proportion of degrees awarded as firsts in 2010/11; proportion of degrees awarded as first in 2015/16; change in percentage points.

University of Durham: 17.8%, 30.2%, 12.4

University of Northumbria at Newcastle: 15.6%, 27.8%, 12.2

Teesside University: 13.8%, 21.4%, 7.5

Newcastle University: 18%, 21.4%, 3.4

University of Sunderland: 12.4%, 14.9%, 2.4

What the analysis shows

:: At 50 UK universities - roughly a third of the total - at least 25% of degrees awarded in 2015/16 were a first, while at 10 institutions, more than a third were given the highest award.

By contrast, in 2010/11 just 12 institutions gave at least one in four degrees a first, and only two gave more than a third the top honour.

:: On average, across all institutions there has been around an eight percentage point rise in firsts in the last five years, the analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data shows.

:: Just seven institutions have seen a fall in the proportion of firsts.

:: Five universities and colleges have seen the proportion of top honours rise by at least 20 percentage points, while 40 institutions have seen at at least a 10-point hike.

The figures, for the academic years 2010/11 and 2015/16, are based on 148 universities and colleges for which there is comparable data, and exclude degrees rated as "unclassified".

A spokeswoman for vice-chancellors' group Universities UK said degree classifications are a matter for individual institutions.

"Every one of our universities is unique, with a different subject mix, student body, faculties and departments and, of course, different course curricula and content, which makes comparison difficult, but this diversity is valued by students and staff and this is a strength of the UK sector," she said.