The proportion of top degree grades awarded to undergraduates in England could fall by nearly 25% after universities said they want to reverse the grade inflation seen during the Covid pandemic.
Universities UK and GuildHE, representing institutions across the higher education sector, have jointly announced plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of firsts and 2:1s being awarded over the next two years.
Universities have been criticised by ministers and the higher education regulator for year-on-year increases in the proportions of top grades awarded, and the Office for Students (OfS) accused universities of damaging the reputation of higher education.
By the end of this year, universities are expected to publish degree outcome statements setting out how they intend to bring future awards into line with the proportion of first and upper second class degrees awarded in 2019.
The impact of the measures would reduce the proportion of first class degrees awarded by nearly 25%.
Anthony McClaran, the vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham and chair of GuildHE, said: “During the pandemic we have rightly recognised the disruption that students have faced and supported students’ achievement to be recognised as flexibly as possible.
“As we emerge from the pandemic it is time to redouble our focus on protecting academic standards and take strong action to ensure we maintain the wider confidence and trust in the system.”
Universities UK said that measures to make sure students “were not unfairly disadvantaged during the unique circumstances of the pandemic” contributed to the steep increases in firsts and 2:1s awarded.
In 2021, nearly 38% of undergraduates in England were awarded a first, more than double the 16% awarded firsts a decade earlier, and well above the 29% awarded before the pandemic. Last year a combined 84% of students achieved a first or upper second, compared with 67% a decade earlier.
The OfS analysis of awards made in 2021 claimed that more than half of first class degrees could not be explained by “observable factors” such as student attainment or social background.
Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said students who graduated over the last three years “should feel proud of, and confident in, the qualifications they worked hard to achieve”.
Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister for England, said she was “delighted” by the announcement.
“Just as the government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable,” she said.
“Hard-working students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers, who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”