(adds comments from the Royal Academy of Music in pars 13-14, comment from Ravensbourne in pars 19-20 and comments from the Office for Students and Universities UK in final pars)
Soaring numbers of firsts are being handed out by universities, with some institutions giving at least a third of degrees the top honour, official figures show.
Virtually all UK universities and college have seen an increase in firsts in the last five years, according to a PA news agency analysis of official data.
The findings come at a time when universities are under intense pressure to be transparent about how they award degrees and to address concerns about grade inflation.
PA’s analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency figures shows that at 25 out of 157 UK universities and colleges – 16% in total – at least 33% of degrees awarded in 2018/19 were given a first.
Of these, seven were Russell Group universities – widely considered among the UK’s leading institutions.
In addition, 99 institutions – 63% overall – gave at least one in four (25%) of degrees the highest honour, the analysis shows.
Of the main, non-specialist universities, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine gave out the highest proportion of firsts, with 48% of degrees awarded the top result.
The university, which is part of the Russell Group, has seen a 13 percentage point rise in the proportion of firsts awarded since five years ago, in 2014/15.
A spokesperson for Imperial College London said: “Our students are high-achievers, their pre-university qualifications are among the highest of any university, and it is to be expected that many go on to gain first class degrees.
“Imperial maintains rigorous academic standards and has robust quality assurance processes in place.”
Two, smaller, specialist institutions gave out a higher proportion of firsts last year.
These were the Royal Academy of Music (52%) and AECC University College, which specialises in health sciences (50%).
The Royal Academy of Music said: “Entry to our undergraduate programmes is extremely competitive and our students hone their skills to a professional level with leading teachers over a four-year intensive programme of study.
“To ensure that we are setting appropriate standards we have two levels of externality in the assessment of our students’ work: a robust system of external examiners to oversee the totality of each programme, and a system of specialist external assessors to ensure that every final recital panel has an experienced professional who is independent of the institution.”
The analysis also shows that 138 out of 153 institutions with comparable data saw at least a one percentage point increase in the numbers of firsts awarded in a five-year period (between 2014/15 and 2018/19).
These figures are all rounded to the nearest whole percentage.
PA’s analysis also shows that of the institutions for which there is comparable data, nearly one in four (24%) – some 36 universities and colleges in total – saw at least a 10 percentage point increase in the number of firsts awarded between 2014/15 and 2018/19.
Ravensbourne University London had the largest increase, with the proportion of firsts given rising 21 percentage points in five years.
Emma Shailer, Ravensbourne’s director of student recruitment and success, said: “We are delighted to see the significant growth in the number of first-class degrees awarded to our students.
“High levels of graduate employment at Ravensbourne are another reflection of the quality of our staff and students — we are incredibly proud to have such talented ambassadors representing us in industry.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has previously warned that the increasing proportion of students being awarded top grades is “undermining our world-class reputation”.
Speaking last month, he said: “The levels of firsts and upper second honour degrees remain at an all-time high.
“Universities are expected to use their awarding powers responsibly and must not inflate grades for their own reputation or league table ranking.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “At a sector level, the data does show that the rapid increase in the rates of students being awarded first-class degrees has stalled. This arrests a long-term trend, with significant, year-on-year increases having been seen since 2011. ”
She added: “Grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in higher education for students, graduates and employers alike. We will continue to seek action to address these issues, both across the higher education sector as a whole and, should it be necessary, at individual universities.”
A spokesman for Universities UK said: “Recent data suggests the number of students getting top degrees is beginning to stabilise.
“New arrangements have been put in place for awarding degrees and as new students begin their studies under these arrangements, we expect to see a further impact on results in future years when these students graduate.
“Universities UK will be reviewing progress one year on from the publication of the statement of intent and we will look again at what more the sector should do if progress has not been made.
“In this debate we should not overlook the evidence that students are working harder and improvements in teaching and investment in academic support and widening participation initiatives are also leading to legitimate grade improvement.”