Universities who continue to give out too many top grades face £500,000 fines, Education Secretary warns

Camilla Turner
Damian Hinds said that the higher education watchdog should

Universities which continue to give out too many top degrees should be investigated, the Education Secretary has warned as he announces fines of up to £500,000 for institutions that fail to get a grip on grade inflation. 

Damian Hinds said that the higher education watchdog should "directly challenge" universities where they find clear evidence of artificial grade inflation. 

Analysis by the Office for Students (OfS) has revealed a surge in the number of graduates with top grades in recent years, with some institutions handing out first class degrees to half of their students. 

The percentage of first class degrees has increased from 16 to 27 per cent over the past six years. Students who left school last year with CCD or below at A-level are now almost three times more likely to graduate with first class honours than they were in 2010-11.

Such increases could not be explained by students working harder alone, the regulator's analysis showed.  

Mr Hinds said that such steep rises in top degrees were "unjustifiable", adding: "If you've already had a sustained period of it going up, out of proportion with what is reasonable, and then you see further grade inflation, I would expect that would attract the attention of the regulator."

The lifting of student number controls in England in 2015 gave universities free rein to recruit as many undergraduates as they see fit - but the move has led to accusations that they now act like businesses, seeking to maximise their revenue by recruiting as many students as possible.

Universities are in fierce competition to attract students and offering a high proportion of top degrees is seen as one way to entice school leavers to an institution.

Ministers are in talks with university league table publishers about how to ensure there are no "adverse incentives" for institutions to ramp up the number of top degrees they hand out in order to boost their standing. 

In 2016-17, 50.1 per cent of students at the University of Surrey were awarded a first class degree, a rise of 27.3 per cent since 2010-11. 

"There are some institutions where the rate of inflation in First and Upper Second degrees has been really quite significant over the past few years," Mr Hinds told The Sunday Telegraph. 

"In the past we've had grade inflation issues around GCSEs and it was important that we fixed them. Now it is really important that we fix grade inflation in higher education."

Institutions found to be artificially inflating their grades can be hit with sanctions by the OfS, including fines or even stripping them of their status as a university. 

Secondary legislation will be passed later this year to beef up the regulator's powers and allow it to levy fines of whichever is greater out of £500,000 or two per cent of the university's income. 

A committee of vice-Chancellors and other sector leaders has been reviewing ways to tackle grade inflation and will report on its findings later this year. 

Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, said that institutions are "determined" to tackle grade inflation. 

"We recognise it is crucial that we keep the confidence of students, employers and the public, in the value of a university qualification," she said.

Some of the increase in the number of top degrees handed out is down to improvement rather than inflation, driven by better teaching and students' hard work, she added.