University students' grades are "creeping up" every year, leading to doubts over the value of gaining a top degree.
More students are expecting to graduate with a top grade
David Thomas, chief executive of the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (Crac), said the upper-second (or 2:1) class of degree "embraces a much wider
range of achievement than in the past".
Last year, 60% of students gained either an upper-second or first-class degree - while a generation ago, the 2:2 would have been the most common grade.
A Crac survey of 1,000 students at 45 British universities showed an
"astonishing" 86% expected to get a first or a 2:1, said Mr Thomas.
The 2:1 band still included those who would have been awarded that degree in
the 1980s, but it now included many others as well.
Mr Thomas said: "Students believe the upper second is now the normal standard. Therefore, quite understandably, they have the expectation of getting that standard."
In the 1980s, most people gained a 2:2 and only a fifth got the top two awards
but by the early 1990s, employers had started to demand a 2:1 as a matter
Mr Thomas added: "It certainly is the case that the upper-second class degree of today doesn't equate to the upper second class degree of a generation ago in any real
"Whether that is a good or bad thing, I'm not saying at the moment. The good
side of it is a lot of people have been through this process and have come out
with results universities believe deserve an upper-second-class degree.
"The downside is that they have potentially done that at cost of real
distinction in the upper-second class.
"Whether that means they have been dumbed down or that standards are higher,
I don't have the information."
But he agreed that so-called "grade creep", the tendency of results to go up
each year instead of down, was a factor.
"There obviously has been some form of grade creep. Of course, that creep can
be caused by achievement creep, if you see what I mean."
His comments come after Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
angered universities by saying traditional three-year degrees were too easy.
It might be necessary to introduce a starred 2:1 class, based on the example
of the A* GCSE grade, said Mr Thomas.
That would highlight the performance of those at the top of the upper-second
category who had not quite made it over the line to a first.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: "We are pleased students have high expectations of their eventual degree classification.
"This reflects the hard work they have done while at university and the value they set on getting a good degree.
"It's disappointing when this hard work is attributed to grade inflation. The sector has worked hard with the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) to
establish a framework for quality and standards against which all our degree
courses are measured, and which is supported by a well established system of
"This framework sets out the subject benchmark characterisations, defining
the scope and range of degree courses and specific subject demands, as well as a
code of practice setting the standards for the student experience.
"All universities and colleges are reviewed against these criteria."