Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) this week reveal a steep increase in the numbers of degrees being awarded at upper second and first class level, with nearly 10,000 more firsts awarded last year than in the academic year 2009-10. An enormous one in six of all graduates last summer achieved a first class degree, prompting concerns of saturation in an already overwhelmed job market.
The statistics show that 64% of all first degrees awarded last year were at upper second or first class level, with 66% of female students achieving this grade. But with around 2,500,000 students currently enrolled in UK universities, there are fears that such high numbers of graduates leaving university with top class degrees will lead to a devaluation of the qualification within the employment market, making it even harder for recent university leavers to find jobs.
Since the advent of the economic crisis, horror stories have abounded about arbitrary methods used by head-hunters and prospective employers to narrow down the thousands of applicants applying for a single job. Whilst university education and degree grades count for something, urban myths have swiftly arisen about piles of applications simply being shredded, or anyone with a surname in the second half of the alphabet just not being considered at all! This problem is only likely to be exacerbated by the over-use of the top available degree grade, preventing employers from being able to use it as a distinction of exceptional quality.
Popular media images of the past year have shown graduates of top UK universities standing in town centres wearing sandwich boards offering to work at any price, whilst the rise and rise of unpaid interns has been clearly documented. So is it a mistake to continue to pump out more and more graduates with first class degrees into the job marketplace?
In a world where employers face mountains of application forms for a single job, reserving the distinction of a first class degree for a very few, top students would surely help to single out those with the most outstanding academic achievement and work ethic, making a fairer division possible in the application process. To flood the jobs market with a wave of tens of thousands of first class degree holders every year risks creating a whole new tier system, in which those with an upper second class degree might not be considered for any jobs at all!
In addition there remains the problem of differentiating between the value ascribed to different classes of degree as awarded by different universities and courses. Whilst it is true that a first class degree is a great achievement, should somebody with an upper second class degree from a top university like Oxford or Cambridge be considered less skilled than a candidate with a first class degree from a less prestigious institution? If one in six graduates are achieving a first, it is extremely likely that it will be these hard working and high achieving graduates of top universities who will lose out on opportunities to less academic peers from poorer universities whose examining bodies have awarded huge numbers of first class degrees.
The job market and the education system are both in a mess. But as with the ever increasing grades and ever decreasing prestige of the A-level system, simply awarding higher and higher marks is not the way to fix it.