Universities awarding higher proportion of firsts
THE proportion of 'firsts' handed out by universities has soared, with one in three institutions now grading at least a quarter of degrees with the top honour.
In some cases, the proportion has more than doubled in five years, according to a new analysis of official data.
Almost all universities and colleges are giving out a higher proportion of first class honours degrees than they were in 2010/11.
The findings are likely to spark fresh debate about grade inflation, and whether the centuries-old classification system is still fit for purpose.
One expert said some increase was not unreasonable, but issues such as university rankings may fuel grade inflation.
The analysis by the Press Association showed that at 50 universities in Britain and Northern Ireland, at least 25 per cent of degrees awarded in 2015/16 were a first, while at 10 institutions, more than a third were given the highest award.
At St Mary's University College in west Belfast, 28.6 per cent of its degrees were awarded the top classification, a jump from 15 per cent five years ago.
At Queen's University Belfast, almost one quarter (24.3) were firsts, slightly more than Stranmillis University College (24.1) and Ulster University (21.4).
Overall, students graduating last year from one of the 24 Russell Group universities - considered among the best - were more likely to walk away with a top award than the average for all institutions.
Across the Russell Group, of which Queen's is a member, the proportion of firsts rose by seven points between 2010/11 and 2015/16.
The analysis further showed:
:: On average, across all institutions there has been around an eight percentage point rise in firsts in the last five years
:: Just seven institutions have seen a fall in the proportion of firsts
:: Five universities and colleges have seen the proportion of top honours rise by at least 20 percentage points, while 40 institutions have seen at at least a 10-point hike.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said some rise "is not unreasonable" given that "schools have got better and some universities have increased their entry tariffs so they're getting better quality students".
But he suggested the impact of university league tables could be fuelling grade inflation.
"There are people who think the system isn't as robust as it might be," Mr Hillman said.
Institution Proportion of firsts in 2010/11 Proportion of firsts in 2015/16 Change in percentage points
St Mary's University College 15% 28.6% 13.6
Ulster University 14.3% 21.4% 7.2
Queen's University Belfast 19% 24.3% 5.3
Stranmillis University College 22.4% 24.1% 1.6