It is probably not surprising that a higher number of first class degrees are now being awarded, given the inclusion of this statistic in league tables and the importance placed on them.
This tendency is enhanced by the way in which courses are actually assessed. In recent years, there has been a move towards an apparently more scientifically based approach to assessment with the course objectives and outcomes for each class of degree made clear at the beginning. If students can demonstrate that their outcomes match the appropriate objectives then how can they not be awarded a first class degree? The question is whether that should be sufficient or whether, in addition to 'ticking the boxes', a first class degree should also require students to demonstrate additional creativity or originality in their approach to the subject, albeit that would be rather more difficult to measure.
Imperial College, London gave first class degrees to 41% of its graduates, but is maybe not the best example from which to draw conclusions. Not only is Imperial a well-established university with a great reputation thereby attracting the top students, but its students are also studying science and engineering subjects. In these disciplines, with a significant mathematical component, assessing genuine understanding of the subject is perhaps a more straightforward matter than in humanities subjects such as law or history.
Universities are guilty of significant degree grade inflation, critics say, with some awarding first-class honours to more than 40 per cent of their graduates. The number of firsts has almost doubled in five years at some universities, with almost three in ten students at Russell Group institutions being given the best degrees last year. Across the board, about a quarter of students graduated with a first — up from 8 per cent in the early 1990s.