The proportion of university students awarded first-class awards has increased by 80% over the past seven years, prompting renewed government demands for immediate curbing of class inflation.
According to new data from the University Inspectorate, the Office for Students (OfS), 16% of students who graduated from an English university in 2010/11 achieved the highest possible graduation score, but last summer's rate had risen to 29% , Last year alone, the proportion of premieres increased by more than 2%.
The increase in first-class degrees is not limited to a handful of rogue universities. Of the 148 higher education providers included in the OfS analysis, 94 percent had a "statistically significant" but unexplained increase in the proportion of first-degree graduates last summer compared to 2010/11.
Among them, the University of Surrey increased its share from 23% in 2010/11 to 45% last summer; Huddersfield rose from 15% to over 40%; Staffordshire jumped from 14% to 34%; and Greenwich from 15.5% to 37%.
Damian Hinds, the education minister, described the numbers as "disappointing" and warned that they could undermine public confidence in standards at UK universities. "It may not be right for some students to receive higher marks for the same level of achievement than in previous years.
"We owe it to the diligent students and institutions who abide by the rules to eradicate this unfair practice. I expect the OfS to challenge those vendors where the data suggest unjustified and unexplained achievements and require evidence to support their actions to prevent this from happening. "
The OfS conducted a similar exercise in December last year, strongly warning universities that they could be fined or even removed from the official register if they did not fight the inflation spiral.
In the past, the sector has counteracted accusations of class inflation, arguing that higher education has changed in recent years. The universities put more emphasis on the quality of the lessons and the students pay high tuition to get the most out of their investment.
However, according to the OfS, taking into account factors such as eligibility and students' characteristics that may affect achievement, there is an "unexplained" difference of 13.9 percentage points compared to the OF's estimates of the proportion of freshers in the years 2017-18.
The regulator acknowledged that there are positive signs that the higher education sector has begun to tackle the problem and said it would take some time for changes to take effect.
However, Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, warned: "Concerns about grade inflation are threatening to devalue university education in the eyes of employers and potential students. Therefore, it is important that we regain and maintain public confidence in the reliability of the classification of financial statements. "
The OfS now plans to contact universities with the highest unexplained growth in grading degrees. "We'll ask for more information so we can understand how they explain these increases," Lapworth said. "When we look for this extra information, we see that there are factors that could explain the increases – for example, improvements in learning and teaching – that we could not measure in our analysis."
Chris Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK, the umbrella organization that represents universities, said the sector is committed to protecting its world-leading reputation. "Students deserve qualifications that they can be proud of, and employers and the general public must have confidence in the results that students achieve.
"This commitment was reflected in the overwhelming support of the recent sector-wide Memorandum of Understanding setting a framework for action, and we know that the institutions are already taking action to review their processes and data.
"It is important not to forget that harder-working students, classroom improvements, investment in academic support, and expansion of participation initiatives are also leading to legitimate class improvement, and such improvements are to be celebrated."