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Grade Inflation Sees King’s Students 60% More Likely to Receive First-Class Honours than in 2015

KCL Awards from 2015 to 2021

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows than King’s College London (KCL) has gone from awarding first class honours to 25% of its students in 2015 to 41.1% in 2022.

The 16.1% jump in first class attainment came mainly at the expense of second class degrees, which fell by 10.1% over this period. The remainder came from a fall in ‘unclassified’ degrees.

First class awards continually rose year-on-year in this seven-year period, except for 2018/19 and 2021/22. In real numbers, 2,100 out of 5,510 graduates achieved a first class qualification in 2022, compared to 1,040 out of 4,155 in 2015. This means that 102% more students graduated with a first class degree, despite the cohort size only increasing by 33%.

The national average for first class awards in 2021/22 was 33%, 8% lower than at KCL. Yet the 41% awarding rate of King’s is still low when compared to other London Russell Group universities. The rate for the London School of Economics (LSE) is 44%, University College London (UCL) 47% and Imperial College London 48%.

The HESA did state that the Covid-19 pandemic likely caused the substantial increase in student attainment in 2019/20. In that academic year, first class awards at King’s jumped from 29.8% to 38.2%.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019/20 many providers issued public statements that a ‘no detriment’ approach would be adopted when it came to assessment. This typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the most recent provider assessment of their attainment.”

Higher Education Statistics Agency

Covid-related grade inflation also led to a surge in top A Level results, which was only corrected by the most recent cohort of British secondary school finishers. Similarly, 2021/22 was the first time in a decade that a national graduating cohort has had a lower first award rate than the previous year.

However, first class attainment at King’s continued to increase from 38.2% to 41.6% in 2020/21, the cycle after many of the grade-inflating measures were in place. It also remained at almost the same level in 2021/22, the most recent data released by the HESA. This suggests that there has been no downwards ‘correction’ at King’s.

The HESA credits hangover Covid-era “modified mitigation policies” for the rise, but the Office for Students (OfS) calls this overall trend of post-pandemic grades being higher than their pre-pandemic equivalents ‘unexplained’. The OfS claims that even after they “accounted for various observable factors – including students’ prior entry qualifications and subject of study”, the rise in student outcomes was difficult to account for. Many of the pandemic-era mitigation measures have also now fully elapsed, suggesting that this may be a new culture of more lenient awarding.

King’s students who are looking ahead to post-university careers will need to balance the increased odds of receiving a top award against the general issue of grade inflation. There have been rising concerns among graduates who fear that their qualification classification is of diminishing value in a competitive job market. Award inflation also risks undermining the value of British qualifications altogether for those who intend to work or study abroad. The Times reports that a quarter of those who achieve DDD at A Level now receive a first-class degree.

The organisation which collected the data, the HESA, is the Designated Data Body (DDB) for English higher education (HE), which gives them the responsibility to “compile appropriate information about HE providers and courses, and make this available to the OfS, UKRI and the Secretary of State for Education”.

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