The national average of students obtaining first class degrees has increased rapidly over the last decade.
A record figure of one in six obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and how the value of degrees can be compared between institutions.
According to figures released last week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11. Just 23,700 gained the equivalent degree in 2000/01.
Although these statistics also reflect the higher number of students in Higher Education, the percentage of graduates reaching the highest qualification rose to 15.5% from just 9% a decade ago.
In contrast, the percentage of students achieving firsts at Oxford has remained relatively steady. 22% of students graduated with a first in 2000/2001, while 29% achieved the qualification last year. This is an overall increase of 30% over the last ten years, significantly smaller than the 75% rise nationally.
Birmingham University’s Professor Alan Smithers commented, “The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless. Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.”
A student from a Liverpool university said that the increase may indicate degrees at some institution getting easier, commenting, “I’ve got a first in all my pieces of coursework so far, without even turning up to a third of my lectures and tutorials.”
One Oxford undergraduate stated, “It’s unfair. When I look at my friends from other universities, the amount of time they spend on getting a 2.1 is disproportionately low compared how much effort a lot of Oxford undergraduates have to put in, to get the same result. I only hope employers recognise that.”
An Oxford spokesperson said they could not comment of the difficulty of other degrees, but that “a degree from Oxford is demanding, intense and in-depth, and a first class degree from Oxford is an extremely strong academic qualification.”
However John Lewis, a leading graduate employer, told Cherwell that for their graduate recruitment scheme, “a candidate with a 2.1 from Oxford University would have no advantage over someone with a 2.1 degree from Reading.”
Conversely, a spokesperson for Teach First, a charity which aims to recruit “high-calibre graduates”, commented, “Teach First has worked closely with Oxford University since our inception in 2002, and Oxford has yielded significantly more hires than any other university including Cambridge.”
Similarly, Deloitte, which is number two on the Times ‘Top 100 Graduate Employers’ list, admitted, “We actively seek applications from Oxford students as they have a very strong track record in passing the selection process, demonstrated by the large Oxford alumni network currently working with us.”
One Oxford student agreed that an Oxford degree tended to be highly valued, saying, “At the company I worked for on my gap year, a 2.1 from any of the top universities would be considered impressive enough to merit consideration. But candidates with Oxbridge degrees, whether a 2.1 or a first, tended to have more impressive CVs, perform better at interview and ultimately be more likely to be offered the job.”
The percentage of students achieving firsts also varies across subjects within the universities. Theology degrees have consistently seen a lower percentage of firsts, with only 11% of Philosophy and Theology students gaining the top qualification in 2010, the lowest of any subject in Oxford. In the same year, only 15% of Classical Archaeology & Ancient History students received first-class honours, while over half of History of Art degrees were firsts.
Philosophy and Theology student Adam Sewell noted that “the lower percentage of firsts could suggest that the exams for Philosophy and Theology are more rigorous.” Alex Chalk, also studying the subject, commented, “For the most part Philosophy and Theology doesn’t seem like a degree that someone would pick due to the prospective employment opportunities it offers, however good or bad they might in fact be.”
Lucy Gray, a Classical Archaeology & Ancient History first-year, told Cherwell that “getting a first isn’t the be all and end all, but it would be nice to think that it was at least achievable.” She continued, “It is slightly disheartening because I know employers won’t necessarily take any of this into account. Although I really enjoy my course, I do want to get a job out of it, and if I had known about how hard it is to get a first in my course I might not have chosen it.”
Undergraduate Xin Fan was less concerned, quipping, “A third-class degree from Oxford should definitely count for more than a third-class degree from anywhere else – we flunk a lot harder. But if John Lewis turned me down, I just don’t know where I’d go. Reading, probably.”