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UK First Class Degree Statistics by Subject

11/01/2024

First class degree statistics have shown a significant rise in UK students achieving top honours in their degrees. Between 2010/11 and 2020/21, the number of students graduating with first class honours has more than doubled, from 15.7% to 37.9% of graduates. And this increase is consistent across upper second-class degrees, where the stats show an increase from 67% to 84.4% of students achieving this grade. 

Some of this can be explained by the differences in assessment methods during the pandemic years, but the majority of the data is simply unexplained. Even The Office for Students has analysed these changes and can’t seem to pin down a reason for the trends.
And these unexplained rises in first class degrees have been seen across 143 universities across the UK. This has called for further investigation into grading practices, and put into question the quality and validity of these grades in the wider world, particularly with employers.


First Class Degree Statistics

  • The number of graduates achieving first class honours has more than doubled between  2010/11 and 2020/21.
  • 25.6% of students choose to go to university in the hope of a career with a higher starting salary.
  • The median salary of a graduate with a first class degree was £20,000-£27,000 in 2020/21.
  • The easiest degree subject to get a first in is midwifery, with 51.8% of graduates getting a first.
  • The most difficult degree subject to get a first in is dentistry with only 5% of graduates getting a first.
  • The UK’s most popular degree is business and management.

Percentage of First Class Degrees by Subject

Of course, the rise in first class degrees being awarded is great news for students. 2023 studies have shown that among those who achieve first class honours, 71% were in full time work within 15 months of graduating. This was followed by 2.1 and 2.2 grades both at 67%, while thirds were at 69%.

This advantage is much needed in the changing employment landscape, economic uncertainty and cost of living crisis the UK has seen in just the last few years alone. So using the statistics to choose a degree that gives the best odds of achieving a first class qualification could be a way to hack the system and ensure returns on the time and cost invested in university. 

Here are some of the easiest and hardest degrees to achieve a first in. These results consider degrees with over 1000 graduates in the UK between 2019/20 and 2021/22.

The easiest degree subject to get a first in

Degree SubjectStudents achieving first class degreesTotal number of graduates
1.Midwifery51.8%2,415
2.Bioengineering, medical and biomedical engineering48.4%1,105
3.Computer science45.8%12,735
4.Software engineering44.7%2,930
5.Physics43.9%4,235
6.Chemical, process and energy engineering42.7%2,730
7.Computing42.6%22,325
8.Electrical and electronic engineering42.3%5,095
9.Dance42.2%1,150
10.Mathematics42.1%8,025
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The hardest degree subject to get a first in

Degree SubjectStudents achieving first class degreesTotal number of graduates
1.Dentistry5.0%1,310
2.Medicine (non-specific)8.0%9,020
3.Medicine and dentistry10.1%10,970
4.Veterinary medicine and dentistry16.4%1,370
5.Health studies17.6%2,705
6.Veterinary sciences18.8%1,725
7.Business and management (non-specific)21.5%12,785
8.Nursing (non-specific)21.6%2,080
9.Combined, general or negotiated studies21.9%1,715
10.Sociology21.9%11,770
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Degrees with an average chance of getting a first in

Degree SubjectStudents achieving first class degreesTotal number of graduates
1.Engineering (non-specific)34.0%2,280
2.Building33.8%4,050
3.Creative writing33.4%1,465
4.English studies (non-specific)33.2%3,815
5.Music33.1%7,530
6.Ecology and environmental biology32.6%1,395
7.Design, and creative and performing arts32.5%41,635
8.Finance32.0%7,455
9.Accounting31.9%8,300
10.Human geography31.9%2,445
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The chance of getting a first in the UK’s most popular degrees

Degree SubjectStudents achieving first class degreesTotal number of graduates
1.Business and management26.4%68,885
2.Subjects allied to medicine32.5%52,135
3.Social sciences27.6%47,555
4.Design, and creative and performing arts32.5%41,635
5.Engineering and technology39.1%29,135
6.Biological and sport sciences30.3%22,820
7.Law22.6%22,680
8.Computing42.6%22,325
9.Psychology27.3%20,825
10.Business studies23.5%17,920
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Evaluating first class degree percentages

The surge in UK students attaining top honours aligns with other academic qualifications like GCSEs and A-Levels. However, such remarkable growth can affect the opinion of the validity of these results. So the 22.2% leap marks a significant academic shift. Yet, we are still no clearer on the reason behind this spike despite concern and research from multiple higher education bodies in the UK.

But these results have a clear impact on graduates’ employment prospects, and getting the higher starting salaries that graduates are looking for. So finding the subject that gives students the highest chance of a first class degree can be essential to ensure proportionate returns on the expense and effort of attending university in 2024. 

Of course, these need to be aligned with students’ employment goals. But they can help students make the difficult decision of which course subjects to pursue at university. And the statistics for subjects like midwifery and bioengineering are very persuasive when compared to the hardest subjects like dentistry and medicine.

To delve deeper into the discussion on the value of university and student choices, you can check out our research where we find out if students think university is worth the money, and how many students are skipping uni and going straight into work


Sources

https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/cd778d76-5810-488b-b1e6-6e57797fe755/ofs-202222.pdf
https://graduatemarkettrends.cdn.prismic.io/graduatemarkettrends/3f170de2-a8d1-4d99-ae96-4e1cb9ae5f7d_what-do-graduates-do-2023.pdf
https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/table-50


This article is intended as generic information only and is not intended to apply to anybody’s specific circumstances, demands or needs. The views expressed are not intended to provide any financial service or to give any recommendation or advice. Products and services are only mentioned for illustrative rather than promotional purposes

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