The education watchdog for England has launched an investigation into grade inflation after a sharp rise in the awarding of first and upper second class degrees at several universities.
The Office for Students (OfS) said the rates of students with high-level degrees at three universities and colleges, which were not named, raised “potential concerns which require further examination”.
The proportion of firsts awarded in England has more than doubled in the past decade, raising fears that degrees are seen as devalued.
If universities or colleges are found to have broken the OfS rules, they could be fined up to £500,000 or 2% of their income.
The regulator requires institutions to award diplomas that are “credible” compared to previous years, and based on “students’ knowledge and skills”.
Grade inflation, the practice of rewarding the same level of student achievement with higher and higher degree classifications, is explicitly prohibited.
The OfS said: “The decision to open these investigations means that the OfS has identified potential issues which require further investigation across all three providers.
“The fact that the OfS is carrying out these investigations should not be taken to indicate that any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place.”
Although the watchdog declined to name the universities and colleges under scrutiny, it intends to release more details “in due course”.
In the 2020-21 academic year, 37.9% of students graduated with a first-class degree, down from 15.7% in 2010-11.
Two months ago, Universities UK and GuildHE – representing 197 UK universities – pledged to bring the proportion of top graduates back to pre-pandemic levels.
“We cannot lose sight of the need to maintain the value of a degree and therefore must redouble our efforts to identify and address unexplained increases in firsts and 2:1s,” they said in a joint statement.