U.K. Degrees and Grade-Inflation

Why are so many U.K. students being awarded first-class degrees?

Almost 38% of U.K. students were awarded first-class honours degrees in 2021, compared to only 15.7% in 2011.

Some of this increase is due to universities awarding more generous degrees during the Covid-19 Pandemic, which mirrors what happened with the over-grading at GCSE and A-level:

However, we can also see from the above chart that this grade inflation has been increasingly steadily nearly every year since 2010-11.

According to REFORM (2) there is also a longer term trend in degree level grade-inflation: In the mid 1990s only 7% of degrees were awarded a first-class honours.

Why are more students being awarded first-class degrees?

It is highly unlikely that the type of students who enter university today are twice as capable of achieving a first-class degree than those students who entered university a decade ago.

Or put another way there aren’t twice as many super-intelligent or super-degree-exam trained students today compared to back in 2013.

Some recent statistical analysis (1) by the Office for Students backs this up: they found that over half of the increase in degree-grades cannot be accounted for by factors such as changes in provider, geographical area, subject, entry qualifications, age, disability, ethnicity, or sex.

Why is there grade-inflation?

Three possible reasons include:

  1. Universities are grading more leniently.
  2. Universities are trying to close the achievement gap
  3. The pressures of marketisation?

Universities grade more leniently today

Analysis by REFORM (2) suggests that universities are getting more lenient in awarding grades. In other words, they are awarding higher grades for lower standards of work.

This is (according to REFORM) happening in two ways:

Universities have changed the algorithms they use to translate raw marks into degree grades, one specific change mentioned is that they are now more lenient towards borderline students: if you’ve got 68% overall you’re now more likely to be tipped over into a first-class honours degree than you would have been ten years ago.

University staff have also come under pressure to mark more leniently, with several staff publicly complaining over the years about the lowering of standards.

Closing the achievement gap

Maybe one upside of grade inflation is that we find that students with worse A-levels are gradually achieving BETTER grades of degrees over time. For example, in 2011 only 40% of students who achieved three Ds at A-level achieved a first or 2.1 degree, by 2021 this figure was 80%.

This is in part how universities justify grade inflation: that it helps them close their disadvantage gap, as it tends to be students from lower income backgrounds who enter with worse A-levels, and we can see from the above chart that the achievement gap has narrowed over time.

The pressures of marketisation?

Students now pay £9000 a year in tuition fees, they didn’t in the mid 1990s.

This may help explain why 38% of students now get firsts compared to only 7% in the mid 1990s.

This could be because of either or both students working harder because they are paying or universities gradually shifting to give students what they are paying for, which is a decent degree at the end of the day!

The problems with grade inflation

While individual students who get a first class degree may feel best-chuffed, when 38% of them are getting the same, the degree is worth less: so many students now get them it is almost like just a standard degree and there is more competition going into the labour market.

And there are question marks over the validity of today’s degrees. If I was en employer and had two candidates for a job: a 2022 graduate with a first-class degree and a 2012 graduate with a 2.1, I would be thinking those degrees are really the same class, just graded at different standards.

In global terms grade inflation reduces the credibility of UK Higher Education market.

Signposting and related posts

This material is relevant to the education module, although not necessarily of direct relevance to A-level sociology this should be of interest to recent graduates: if you have a first-class degree then your prospective employers may well be suspicious of its validity, so don’t rest on your laurels!

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com


(1) Office for Students (2022) Analysis of Degree Classifications Over Time: Changes in Graduate Attainment from 2010-11 to 2020-21.

(2) Reform (2018) A degree of Uncertainty: An Investigation into Grade Inflation in Universities.

Is the increasing number of graduates a good thing?

In 1950 there were 19700 young people graduated with a degree, in 2019 that figure will be around 1.4 million.

However, is this increasing number of graduates actually a good thing?

There have certainly been a lot of winners with the expansion of Higher Education, which is now big business in the UK.

More graduates has meant more money flowing into Universities (albeit from private rather than public sources, more of that later), and many of these have expanded, which has resulted in an increase in teaching jobs and various support jobs in the HE sector.

And there is a whole industry surrounding meeting students’ needs – most obviously the need for student accommodation, but also a whole host of local businesses in university towns will be partially or wholly dependent on student expenditure. The student subsistence economy is estimated to be worth £95 billion annually.

However, in 2018 only 57% of young graduates went onto ‘higher skilled employment’, while 43% ended up unemployed or in jobs which previously would not have required a degree, such as nursing.

This means that almost half of today’s graduates could be victims of what we might call ‘qualification inflation’, and rather than going straight into work at 18 and training/ qualifying on the job while earning, they are now effectively forced into having three years of no or low earnings while they study for unnecessary qualifications while being saddled with student loan debts of tens of thousands of pounds.

A final little known fact is that around 1/2 of student loans are never repaid, which means that the taxpayer is effectively subsidising these unnecessary degrees, and there does seem to be a disturbing correlation between the half of students doing unnecessary degrees and the half of loans not repaid.

This means that the taxpayer is subsidising around half a million students a year to do degrees that are in no way related to their jobs, while a good chunk of this money gets sucked upwards, to universities and landlords.

Seems like a hidden case of the state subbing the elite by stealth, while conning almost half of university students?!?

Source: The Week 7 December 2019.

How to Break Into the Elite

Why don’t working class graduates with good degrees get the best jobs?

This documentary focuses on social mobility, and the myth of meritocracy, focusing on why working class graduates with good degrees struggle to get into the top jobs.

Statistics mentioned in the documentary

  • About 1/3rd of the population come from working class backgrounds, but only 10% make it into Britain’s top professions, and they earn 15% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Put another way you are 6 times more likely to land an elite job if you’re upper middle class.
  • Russel Group University students with 2nd class degrees are more likely to go into a top profession than those from working class backgrounds and got a first.
  • Oxbridge candidates from privileged backgrounds end up earning more than those from less privileged backgrounds.
  • Banking and finance – 34% educated privately
  • Private equity – nearer 70%

Top employers want cultural capital as well as qualifications

The stats suggest that top employers are not rewarding what the universities are rewarding, and this is preventing working class kids from getting the top jobs.

City recruiters are looking for ‘polish’ in the way they present – if we break this down this means accent, mannerism, behavior, dress.

One of the areas most affected by this is sales in finance: it is felt that if employees don’t look and feel ‘reassuringly expensive’, this will undermine the firm/ sector.

To illustrate this we have an interview with one independent recruitment agent who has a woman with an Essex accent on her books who she ‘can’t get a job for love for money’

This also applies to the The Media Sector – 60K of last years grads aspired to a career in media, but working class students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’. With the media, there’s a kind of ‘studied informality’ and way of being ‘knowingly hip, and those from WC backgrounds are just confused by it… lack of being at ease.

It seems that having cultural capital is crucial to breaking into a job in Media: If you have a parent who works in film and television you’re 12 times more likely to work in the Media, and 60-70% of those who work in The Media come from professional and managerial backgrounds. Tacit knowledge, no explicit rules about how you get in.

The problem with all of this is that this set of rules are ‘tacit’ – they unwritten, a set of social codes which are quite ‘knowing’ (to with dress/ speak) and without being brought up with them, working class people struggle to make the leap of selfhood required to get into the top jobs.

Why the working classes lack confidence….

People from disadvantaged backgrounds have more unstable lives, those from more advantaged have more stable lives and are more likely to have been brought up being listened to and having their opinions valued as a peer, that breeds familiarity and confidence – knowing that everything’s going to ‘be OK’ tomorrow.

Three contrasting case studies

The documentary uses case of students who have just graduated, some working class and struggling to get good jobs despite their top degrees from good universities, and one middle class student:

Amaan – has a degree in Economics from Nottingham and has wanted a i equity sales in an investment bank (since he was 13), also world kickboxing champion at 17, but he struggles with a lack of confidence in interviews.

Elvis from East London – has a degree in political economy at Birmingham, wants a city job in finance, he ends up getting onto a graduate training programme with bank (if I remember correctly).

Finally, Ben from Dulwich, screamingly middle class who charmed his way into London Live and the local press – he was just pushy, winged it, and looks set to get a career in the media despite his degree in Classics.

Ian Wright and the Internal Class Ceiling

Unexpectedly the documentary has a section featuring Ian Write, from a working class background who talks about the prejudice he has faced in his media career.

He even says we should abolish private schools and ‘give the working class guns’ to get over the middle class advantage, and that interview training and soft skills are bullshit – you shouldn’t have to be someone you’re not.

Relevance to A-level sociology

There are very obvious links here to the cultural capital topic within the education module!

Sources/ find out more

  • Sam Friedman* – researches the link between social class and higher professional and managerial jobs
  • And a link to the documentary.

Is it worth doing a degree?

Is it worth spending £30, 000 or more and three years of your life doing a degree?

If we limit our analysis to purely financial considerations and if we focus on ‘median earnings’ – then yes, on average, it is definitely still worth doing a degree: graduates currently earn about £8K a year more on average than non graduates (graduate labour market statistics 2015)


However, the gap between the earnings of graduates and non-gradates is closing – in 2005 graduates earned about 55% more than non graduates, while in 2015 they only earned 45% more.


If this trend continues, then a degree will be worthless by 2045, at least if we measure the value of a degree purely in economic terms.

A recent YouGov survey (May 2017) found that only 61% of students felt that their degree was worth the money, so possible this is evidence that what students feel is coming into line with the more objective financial trends above…

Of course there’s a whole load of other factors you need to consider to answer the above question fully! But I wanted to keep this post focused on just one dimension.

Further reading