More than one in three students gained a first class degree last year after institutions adopted “no detriment” policies on final grading, figures show.
In total, 35% of students at UK universities graduated with a first in 2019/20, compared with 28% in 2018/19, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
This is more than double the percentage who gained a first in 2009/10 (14%).
The rise comes after a number of institutions decided to take a “no detriment” approach on assessment due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This approach typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their attainment.
More female students gained a first, or 2:1, than male students last year, the figures show.
The proportion of students who received a 2:2 fell from 19% in 2018/19 to 15% in 2019/20.
The surge in top degrees comes after calls on universities to clamp down on grade inflation.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “I think we are already seeing the pushback with, for example, more reluctance to impose no detriment policies this year.
“Institutions are worried about the political storms ahead on this as politicians are never keener to tread on universities’ autonomy than on the number of firsts.”
The latest HESA figures show that 47% of student got a 2:1, 15% were handed a 2:2 and 3% got a third or a pass.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS) watchdog, said: “This latest set of figures covers students graduating during the early stage of the pandemic. This was a period of intense disruption, with universities needing to move studies online very rapidly.
“As a result of this many universities implemented ‘no detriment’ policies, and these policies lie behind the significant increase in first class honours awarded to students graduating in 2020.
“Before the pandemic, OfS analysis found evidence that unexplained grade inflation at our universities had begun to slow.
“However, there is more to be done to ensure that students, graduates and employers can maintain their confidence in the value of a degree and temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “Throughout the pandemic, university staff have gone above and beyond to support students and adjust quickly to new ways of working.
“Any rise in the number of first class degrees being awarded is a reflection of the incredible efforts made by staff to adapt their teaching.
“We also know that students have endured a rollercoaster year and it’s important that no student is unfairly disadvantaged.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “The outcomes presented in this data represent the hard work of students who have had to navigate their studies during an unprecedented time.
“The exceptional circumstances have meant many institutions made changes to recognise the additional pressures facing students, who should not be unfairly disadvantaged by circumstances outside of their control.
“It is the responsibility of individual providers to assess their own approach to ‘safety net’ policies – in accordance with OfS regulation.”
He added that the higher education sector had taken action through statements of intent to protect the value of degree classifications and UUK will “continue to set strong expectations for speedy progress in this area”.