Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 11

Submission from Professor Mantz Yorke[16]

Changes over time in the proportion of "good honours degrees" awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland


  1.  The establishment of the Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA] has made possible analyses of bachelor's degree classifications awarded since the academic year 1994-95. The recording of award data was subjected to a break at the beginning of the academic year 2002-03 when a new system of classifying academic subjects was implemented.

2.  A summary of the analyses is presented below, and greater detail can be found in the annexed paper[17]. Data from Scottish institutions have been excluded from the analyses because of the different approach adopted in Scotland to the award of honours. Bachelor's degrees in Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science are typically awarded on a non-honours basis and are also excluded.

3.  Analyses of this type are important, since they can add some light to the heat engendered by assertions of "grade inflation".

4.  The analyses for the period 1994-2002 showed that the percentage of "good honours degrees" (ie first and upper second class honours degrees, combined) tended to rise in almost all subject areas. When the award data were disaggregated by institutional type, the rises were most apparent in the elite "Russell Group" universities.

  5.  Similar analyses for the period 2002-2007 showed that there was still a general tendency for the percentage of "good honours degrees" to rise, but that the strongest rises were scattered more evenly throughout institutional types.

  6.  There are many possible reasons for the observed changes. Amongst those likely to influence an upward movement in classifications are:

    — Improvements in teaching

    — Greater student diligence

    — Curricula being expressed in terms of specific learning outcomes which give students a clear indication of what they need to achieve

    — Students being "strategic" about curricular choices

    — Developments in assessment methods

    — Changes in the way that classifications are determined

    — The significance for institutions of "league tables".

Classifications may be influenced downwards by:

    — Student part-time employment

    — The distraction from teaching of other demands on academics' time.

The following might also be influential, but it is unclear what their effects might be:

    — Changes in institutions' student entry profiles

    — Changes in the portfolios of subjects offered by institutions.

  7.  Since the honours degree classification is likely to remain for the foreseeable future (even if greater attention is given to the Diploma Supplement and the Higher Education Achievement Report), there is a need for the higher education sector to have a greater appreciation of the probable effect of the various influences on the classification process. This would best be achieved through investigations in a number of subject disciplines selected as broadly representative of sectoral provision.


  It is recommended that a study be undertaken of the influences upon the classification of honours degrees, and that this be undertaken in a representative range of subject disciplines. The Subject Centres of the Higher Education Academy could be the focal points for this work.

January 2009

16   Lancaster University. Back

17   This paper is to be presented on 9 December 2008 at the conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education held in Liverpool. Back

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