Reports recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the number of firsts and upper-second-class degrees awarded have substantially risen in all universities except Oxford and Cambridge.

The number of firsts awarded between 1999 and 2012 trebled from 20,700 to 61,605. The rise in firsts achieved in Oxford has been disproportionate to the national figures, with 20% being awarded in 2000 and rising to only 29% in 2011. The increase has been even smaller in Cambridge, rising from 21% to 24% over the same period.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford, said, “We do not know why more students have been getting firsts. It could be that they are working harder or it could be that they are better taught than in the past. It could be that, as the nature of assessment has changed with a greater emphasis on coursework and less on a single summative exam, it has allowed harder working students to do better. Or it could be that marking is less rigorous. I suspect it is probably a combination of these factors.”

Professor Joseph Farrell, formerly of the University of Strathclyde, commented, “It used to be that any Honours degree was of value, including a third. Now virtually no one gets a third, since it is as welcome as a diagnosis of the plague. The 2:2 is going the same way. Many employers will only engage people with a 2:1 or above. A 2:2 is now regarded as of little value.

“The fundamental point is how to interpret the rise in the number…does this rise represent an improvement in quality in student knowledge and understanding, or does it represent a fall in marking standards? There is an optimistic answer and a pessimistic answer. I see no reason for optimism.”

Universities control their courses and the awarding of degrees. A spokesperson for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said, “Higher education institutions are responsible for ensuring that policies – including those that guide grading and award classification – are fair. Our review teams check how they meet their responsibilities, but do not second-guess decisions made about the achievements of individual students.”

One Oxford student, who achieved a first at Prelims, commented, “Because Oxford still sticks by its approach of evaluating essays as individual points of views as opposed to a checklist of right answers, it makes it harder to know for sure how one can get a First. A lot is therefore left as guesswork and luck, which is hard for any student to prepare for.”

A student at Jesus College claimed the slower rise in the number of firsts is reflective of the increased difficulty of attending Oxford and Cambridge. “I went home exhausted, and told my parents I was scraping a 2:1 despite working harder than I ever had,” he said.

“My sister on the other hand returned home bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and declared she was working at a first quite easily, while still having more free time than she could productively fill. She spent the vac socialising and occasionally revising for multiple choice exams.”

In his blog for the Telegraph, Toby Young commented: “In the end it’s today’s best students I feel sorry for… their firsts can only be worth half as much to them as mine was to me since they’re now twice as easy to get. The problem with the all-must-win-prizes philosophy is that no prize is worth winning.”

A spokesperson for Oxford University stated, “The pursuit of academic excellence is one of the key aims of the University of Oxford and this is reflected in the standards expected of the University’s staff and the students.”