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HESA has just published the most recent student data. It shows a 3 percentage point increase over a three-year period in the proportion of students qualifying with a first or upper second class degree, from 72 per cent in 2014-15 to 75 per cent in 2016-17. The data also shows a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students gaining a first, from 22 per cent in 2014-15 to 26 per cent in 2016-17.

This increase in student attainment needs to be viewed in the context of other changes in the characteristics of the graduating student cohort. A comprehensive analysis of the factors that affect degree outcomes requires complex statistical modelling of the underlying data at the level of individual students.

In 2015 we carried out analysis which looked at degree outcomes for young students who graduated in the period 2010-11 to 2013-14. That study found that around half the increase in the proportion of those qualifying with a first or upper second class degree was explained by changes in the student characteristics, particularly (but by no means exclusively) the level 3 qualifications (e.g. A-levels, BTECs) that these students were holding when they entered higher education.

How have level 3 qualifications of graduates changed between 2014-15 and 2016-17?

In 2014-15, 83 per cent of student qualifiers entered HE with three A-levels; this dropped to 79 per cent of 2016-17 qualifiers. In contrast, in 2014-15 only 12 per cent of qualifiers entered HE with three BTEC qualifications compared to 14 per cent in 2016-17.

There has also been an increase in the proportion of students entering HE with a combination of A-levels and BTECs – from 4 per cent of students who qualified in 2013-14 to 6 per cent of the qualifiers in 2016-17.

Number qualifiers by entry qual final
Changes in qualifiers by entry qualifications final

Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the number of graduates who entered HE with the highest possible BTEC grades (Distinction*, Distinction*, Distinction*) has more than doubled to just under 7,000 – an increase of approximately 4,000 (+136 per cent).

Over the same time the number of students graduating who entered with the highest possible A-level grades (A*, A*, A*) has decreased slightly (-7 per cent), by approximately 300, to around 4,300 in 2016-17.

The number of qualifiers who entered HE with a combination of A-levels and BTECs has increased by 74 per cent, from 6,200 in 2014-15 to over 10,800 in 2016-17.

But has this affected degree attainment?

The chart below shows that for almost every entry qualification profile the proportion of students gaining a first class degree has increased between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The increase varies between 2 and 6 percentage points for all A-level grade profiles and for most BTEC grade profiles.

Proportion first degree by entry qual final
Changes in qualifiers first class degree by entry qualifications final

There has generally been a large increase in the proportion of students with A-levels gaining a first class degree. Coupled with the fact that around 80 per cent of young students who enter higher education are holding A-level qualifications, this means that most of the increase in first class degrees is for this group (around 8,000 more in 2016-17 compared to 2014-15).

Graduates who entered higher education with BTEC qualifications were also more likely to gain a first class degree for most BTEC grade profiles. However, because fewer young people hold BTECs when they enter this group the increase in first class degrees for this group is smaller in number (1,600 more in 2016-17 compared to 2014-15).

For students who enter with a combination of A-levels and BTECs there has been a 5 percentage point increase in the proportion gaining first class degrees – from 14 per cent in 2014-15 to 19 per cent in 2016-17.

What other factors might explain the change?

We can conclude from this analysis that although patterns of entry qualifications held by students have varied, these do not completely explain the changes in degree classification that we are seeing. As our earlier work showed there are a number of other factors that could contribute to the rise in first class degrees. Understanding these will take further work.

There are also factors that we cannot directly measure in the data we have that may have contributed to the increases in first class degrees: for example, improvements in learning, teaching and retention practices, and in students’ own study behaviours following the introduction of higher fees and loans.

Read our post on securing confidence in degree classification

Note: The HESA data includes UK publicly-funded HEIs and the University of Buckingham. The analysis in this blog post looks only at HEFCE-funded (English) HEIs.