“Good” Degrees

We all know that gaining a good degree is important, perhaps more so now than ever. The increasingly consumerist approach by students might be enshrined in “what do I need to do to get a 2(i)?”, but in many cases this is also accompanied by a commitment to work that was perhaps less of a focus when I first studied. That might be also be attributable to the changing perceptions that students have of their higher education – seeing it as a transaction in which they engage to gain clearly defined outcomes, rather than the wider exploration that HE might have been considered to have been in some non-existent golden era.

A good degree is understood to be a benefit to the individual – it’s likely to help open doors in getting that first graduate job. It’s also beneficial for institutions for their students to be successful in this way: all university league tables include “good degrees” or some variant thereof in their analysis, and so the university that awards high numbers of good degrees can expect to reap the rewards in league table position. Of course there is also virtuous circle effect here – universities that are at the top of the tables may be the most selective, and able to recruit the students with the highest entry tariff scores in the anticipation that they will thrive. Other institutions will argue that they provide a greater amount of value added to students with lower entry grades.

In January, HESA published its first data release, which showed the range of degree classifications as follows:


72% of first degrees undertaken through full-time study in 2013/14 achieved first or upper second classifications compared to 54% of those undertaken through part-time study.

Now that more detailed data has become available through Hedi, then we can look to see how the different institutions perform on this measure – and whose outputs have changed significantly.

So here are the top 10 universities for awarding good degrees in 2013-14:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
The University of Oxford 92% 92% 0%
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama 91% 91% 0%
Guildhall School of Music and Drama 87% 91% 4%
Central School of Speech and Drama 88% 88% 0%
The University of St Andrews 88% 88% 0%
The University of Cambridge 87% 88% 1%
University College London 87% 88% 1%
Royal Academy of Music 77% 88% 11%
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine 88% 87% -1%
University of Durham 85% 87% 2%

And at the other end of the results….

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
London Metropolitan University 51% 55% 4%
University of Bedfordshire 48% 55% 7%
The University of East London 54% 54% 0%
Glynd?r University 54% 54% 0%
University College Birmingham 46% 54% 8%
University Campus Suffolk 56% 53% -3%
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 49% 51% 2%
SRUC 44% 51% 7%
The University of Buckingham 43% 51% 8%
The University of Sunderland 54% 50% -4%

For those of us who have an interest in league tables, then the interesting thing to look at will be those universities which have seen significant changes in the percentages of good degrees that they award. Hence we might look to see some league table gains (ceteris paribus) for the following:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
Leeds Trinity University 56% 69% 13%
Royal Agricultural University 51% 63% 12%
Royal Academy of Music 77% 88% 11%
Bournemouth University 65% 76% 11%
Glasgow School of Art 59% 69% 10%
The University of Wolverhampton 50% 59% 9%

noting that Wolverhampton doesn’t engage in league tables.

The biggest drops are for:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
University Campus Suffolk 56% 53% -3%
Writtle College 52% 49% -3%
Heythrop College 83% 79% -4%
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 79% 75% -4%
The University of Sunderland 54% 50% -4%
The Royal Veterinary College 75% 66% -9%
University of the Highlands and Islands 71% 58% -13%

As well as looking at the percentages of good degrees, with a little bit of Heidi magic we can look to see how various student characteristics have an impact on outcomes. A particular interest of mine is attainment of students from a BME background, and in considering how any attainment gap can be reduced. This will form the subject of a later post.

3 thoughts on ““Good” Degrees

  1. Thanks mike for the review of the data.

    As with all data the more interesting analysis is to be done on the ‘why’, as often the data just tells us the ‘what’ . For those HEI’s that have shown significant improvements in the % of good degrees, I’d like to have a better understanding of why their marks have improved and what it is that they may attribute that to.

    Most institutions often look to the ‘golden ege’ answer, as if its simply possible to, ‘do this and this will be the result’ we all know that its nowhwere near as simple as that and often its a combination of strategic policy intervention and the subsequent operationalisation of that policy which leads to institutional and cultural change and thereby lasting change.

    There is for instance a much greater recognition and realisation of the importance of ‘good degrees’ from staff, students and from the institution, for many many good reasons. There is a greater profile and guidance given to marking within the full range, there’s greater emphasis upon the personal tutoring system and the need for early intervention. There’s more support in place in relation to ‘maximising your academic sucess’ for students, but no doubt there are other things that can and should be done, so to have a better understanding of what leads to success in terms of greater numbers of good degrees would be useful. Mark

  2. Thanks Mike for this and the previous range of thought provoking articles. As you and Mark Savage both indicate, it would be both interesting and useful to know what strategies have been or can be used to improve attainment generally, and to increase ‘good degree’ rates specifically. And, as you highlight Mike, it would be especially helpful to identify strategies that address attainment by all those students referred to homogenistically as ‘BME’ students.

    I wonder though, as we shift to what you rightly suggest is an ‘increasingly consumerist approach’ by students in increasing competitive sector, will there be – if there isn’t currently – an erosion of HEIs traditional willingness to share good practice: the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to which Mark refers?

    • Nigel – in terms of BME you are right, we need to look beyond this general grouping and consider individual groups of students, however it is the way in which ECU and others analyse the national data. Also, the diversity of student populations varies dramatically within the individual schools and faculties of our university – in some the numbers of students from BME backgrounds are such that no statistical significance could be attached to the differential degree rates, whereas in others we have first year classes where fewer than 50% of students are white.

      With regard to an erosion of teh willingness of HEIs to collaborate – I don’t see thsi happeneing yet. If nothing else, because academic staff refuse to become part of the new brutalism in HE, and will continue to work collegiately between institutions if not within.

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