If a First Class degree from a British university is a mark of high achievement, this achievement is not as difficult to attain as it used to be, writes Graeme Paton, the education editor of The Daily Telegraph. According to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there are now three times as many university students graduating with a First as there were 12 years ago.
In just the last 12 months, the number of graduates leaving with a First grew by 16%, and a full two-thirds of students who received their degree in 2012 got at least a 2:1. The 2:1, or "Second," as it is more commonly known, is considered the minimum result required to qualify for most post-graduation jobs.
The data is only the latest sign that the system of honors used by the universities in Britain has now outgrown its usefulness and that the system of Firsts, Seconds, and Thirds is a poor one for differentiating and highlighting real student achievement.
Some universities are already taking steps to remedy this. For many students who are set to begin their university study this year, their final diploma will come not only with a degree class, but also a complete breakdown of their university achievements. The additional information will be provided to make it easier for employers to distinguish graduates from each other.
It is thought that existing degree classifications could eventually be axed altogether. According to HESA, 17 per cent of students – 61,605 – gained a first last summer. This was up from 15.5 per cent – 53,215 – a year earlier.
Numbers have tripled since 1999 when just 20,700 graduates were awarded first-class degrees. The increase in top degrees has been partially put down to a sharp rise in the undergraduate population, although the latest figures show that the hike in firsts has dramatically outstripped overall student numbers.
The growth in the number of firsts has – almost inevitably – led to the decrease in value for any other class of degree. According to Paton, there are a number of employers who are now refusing to consider any candidate that failed to earn the top degree. The Association of Graduate Recruitment published a report last summer that warned that employers now routinely "screen out" applicants with 2:2 degrees or worse.
But the study found that some companies were "considering increasing their requirement to a minimum of a first degree classification due to the high volume of their graduates who actually achieve this". Commenting on the latest figures, Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said: "We have seen the 200-year-old degree classification system become used more and more frequently by employers as an automatic cut-off point.