Universities must not allow a ‘decade of grade inflation to be baked into the system’

The higher education regulator has warned universities and colleges to steer clear of normalising post-pandemic grade inflation.

Universities must not allow a ‘decade of grade inflation to be baked into the system’

Figures released by the Office for Students (OfS) today find that more than half of first class degrees awarded to students in 2020-21 cannot be explained when compared to students’ attainment a decade ago.

The report – Analysis of degree classifications over time: changes in graduate attainment from 2010-11 to 2020-21 – analyses degrees awarded to students between 2010-11 and 2020-21, with data presented at a sector, subject and individual university and college level. In 2010-11, 15.7 per cent of students were awarded first class honours. The proportion of students awarded the top grade has more than doubled, reaching 37.9 per cent in 2020-21. The report also finds:   

  • Nearly six in ten first class degrees are unexplained. Of the 37.9 per cent of students awarded first class degrees, 22.4 percentage points remained unexplained after the OfS had taken into account a variety of observable factors – including students’ prior entry qualifications and their background characteristics – which may affect attainment.
  • By 2020-21 all universities and colleges included in the analysis saw significant increases in unexplained first class degrees when compared to 2010-11.
  • Rates of first class awards have risen for all students, regardless of their entry qualifications. In 2020-21, 60.8 per cent of students with three As and above at A-level received a first class degree, compared to 33.5 per cent in 2010-11. The average rate of firsts for those entering with A-levels DDD and below has increased more than five-fold, from 5.3 per cent to 28.5 per cent.

Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive at the OfS, said:

'This report starkly demonstrates the scale of increases in degree classifications in our universities and colleges. Unmerited grade inflation is bad for students, graduates and employers, and damages the reputation of English higher education.

'We know that universities and colleges used ‘no detriment’ policies to respond to the exceptional set of circumstances caused by the pandemic. But grade inflation has been a real credibility issue for the sector for some time and the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to allow a decade of unexplained grade inflation to be baked into the system.

'Our report is clear that there are a variety of reasons – including improved teaching and learning – that could lead to an increase in the rate of firsts awarded. However the sustained increase in unexplained firsts awarded continues to pose regulatory concerns for the OfS.

'It is essential that students, employers and graduates can have confidence that degrees represent an accurate assessment of achievement, with credible and reliable qualifications which stand the test of time. Where this is not the case, the OfS has always said we are prepared to take action. We now have new conditions of registration in force and we will be publishing more details about our plans to investigate these issues shortly.'

Read our latest analysis of grade inflation


  1. The term ‘unexplained’ in the analysis means that changes in attainment since 2010-11 cannot be statistically accounted for by changes in the characteristics of the graduating cohort in terms of the explanatory variables included in the statistical modelling.
  2. The analysis included degrees awarded by 143 universities, colleges and other higher education providers.
  3. The OfS used statistical modelling of individual-level graduate data to estimate expected patterns in degree classification attainment between 2010-11 to 2020-21, accounting for the following graduate characteristics (explanatory variables):
  • the provider at which the graduate was registered
  • year of graduation
  • subject of study
  • qualifications on entry into higher education
  • age
  • declared disability status
  • ethnicity
  • sex
  • tracking underrepresentation by area based on Middle Super Output Areas (TUNDRA MSOA) quintile.

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