Students at Lancaster University were almost twice as likely to get a first in 2018 as in 2010, as universities are accused of “spiralling grade inflation”.
The universities watchdog, the Office for Students, warned that the increasing number of first-class degrees risks “undermining public confidence in our higher education system”. The OfS also threatened to fine institutions whose qualifications fail to hold value over time.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that in 2010, the year the Government announced tuition fees would triple, 16% of students at Lancaster were awarded firsts.
However, last year 29% received the top grade, making students almost twice as likely to receive the highest grade.
Across the UK, the percentage of students receiving firsts has increased from 14% at the start of this decade to 28% last academic year.
An OfS report states that the rising number of first-class degrees and 2:1s, the next highest degree, cannot be explained solely by increased investment in teaching and resources.
It claims that there are unexplained increases in the number of firsts at 84% of the UK’s universities.
Critics say that increased competition between universities has led to them altering the way grades are calculated, to increase the number of firsts.
Universities say students are working harder, with better teaching and materials.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “It is fundamentally important – for students, graduates and employers – that degrees hold their value over time.”
She explained the research showed “significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11”.
“We absolutely recognise how hard students work for their degrees, and accept that improved teaching and student support, and increases in the qualifications students gain before university, could explain some of the increase in grades.
“However, even accounting for prior attainment and student demographics we still find significant unexplained grade inflation.”
She added: “The sector must quickly get to grips with this issue.”
The University of Surrey had the biggest increase, with the percentage of firsts rising from 17% in 2010 to 42% last year.
At Lancaster, out of the 2,850 students to finish undergraduate degrees in 2017, 77% were awarded firsts or 2:1s.
In 2010, 74% of students, out of a total of 2,290, received the top two grades.
The Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, said he hoped the OfS report would act as a “wake-up call”.
“Institutions should be accountable for maintaining the value of the degrees they award,” he explained.
“I am urging universities to tackle this serious issue and have asked the Office for Students to deal firmly with any institution found to be unreasonably inflating grades.”
Universities UK, which represents 137 universities, said institutions are committed to ensuring the value of qualifications and maintaining public confidence in the results students receive.
Prof Debra Humphris, of UUK, said: “We want to see greater levels of transparency and consistency in academic standards.”