The first class honours degree is the ultimate prize for UK undergraduates. It is a symbol of being the best of the best. Undoubtedly, this is the case for some students. Yet the statistics for the number of first class honours degrees awarded by UK Higher Education Institutions (‘universities’ to most of us) shows, well, things aren’t what they used to be.
There is a competitive problem for universities. Undoubtedly, awarding first class degrees is attractive to students, their families, and employers. It is a symbol of perceived quality. And so, there is an incentive to increase the number of firsts awarded. Which makes competitors less attractive, which leads them to award more firsts, which… well, you can see the problem.
And the figures say it all. In the graph below, I have plotted the percentage of firsts awarded in the UK. Over a 11 year period, this percentage has doubled. While arguably being not quite exponential growth, the upward trajectory is clear. Which indicates that this problem isn’t going away.
But what to do? Put a government imposed limit on the percentage of firsts allowed? That would work, but universities would argue that they have a better intake so should be allowed to award more. Scrap the degree classification and report marks? That would be useful, but there is no comparison between students. Maybe a rank position would work. Yes, that may be the best solution. But then how do you compare between universities? Self-confident universities need to stand up and take the lead in declaring that their first is not the same as another university’s first. The question is which ones – and when?
Perhaps universities should lose responsibility for examining their students just as schools have. Giving responsibility for grading to outside bodies would open up the whole sector to competition.