Degree grade inflation is down to tuition fees because students are more motivated and are working harder, a Cambridge don has claimed.
Professor Graham Virgo, Cambridge’s pro-vice chancellor for education, said that a record rise in first class degrees was not a “cause for concern”, adding that students were now more determined to “get the best job that they can”.
His remarks come after figures released on Thursday showed that 100,495 graduates left university last year with top honours, up by 40 percent in four years.
The latest statistics, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, have alarmed experts and the university regulator the Office for Students, which has called on the sector to take action to halt the trend.
Critics have also accused universities of “massaging” figures in order to maintain their league table rankings, which reward institutions which hand out higher numbers of first class degrees.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Prof Virgo disputed claims that universities were inflating grades to improve satisfaction rates among students.
He argued that the trend could be attributed to the tripling of tuition fees in 2012, adding that anecdotal evidence at Cambridge had shown that students were now more focussed on their studies.
“Students know that in many sectors, if they graduate with a 2:ii, their chance of getting employment in that sector is substantially reduced,” he said.
“We do not necessarily need to say that grade inflation is a bad thing. We have analysed it and the evidence is that students are working harder,” he continued.
“The motivation for students to work harder and get more out of their studies is party tuition fees, partly because of the criteria that employers are imposing.”
Speaking at an earlier Lords economics committee hearing, Prof Virgo said: “If we were desperate to do really well in a student satisfaction survey, we might decide that we would be easier on students and give them an easier time at university so that they were more satisfied.
“We are not doing that, we want to maintain standards.”
However, experts said last night that even if students were working harder, it was incumbent on universities to take steps to reduce the number of top degrees awarded.
Several pointed to GCSE and A-level examinations – where grade boundaries are changed every year depending on how the student population performs – as evidence that there were viable solutions.
“It sounds to me like a narrative designed to bat away criticism of what is an obvious problem,” said Professor Alan Smithers, director of education at Buckingham University.
“It is possible to come up with an accepted grade distribution. Within the sector you could say that in any university a set proportion would get a first or 2:1.
“The problem is that universities have been chasing league table positions and have behaved disgracefully.
“What tuition fees have actually done is turn students into customers, and universities are now working to provide their consumers with the best possible outcomes.”
His comments were echoed by Sir Michael Barber, the chairman of the Office for Students, who said that grade inflation could not be “explained away”.
“It’s clearly an area of concern, and one of the key issues for the Office for Students is to make sure that degrees students are awarded have strong validity in the labour market,” he added.
“What is a matter of concern is the rate of increase. It can’t be explained away simply by students working harder.”