Varying degrees of success: grade inflation hits profession

Whether it is the cost of petrol or a loaf of bread it is impossible to read the papers at the moment without some sort of reference to inflation.

Whether it is the cost of petrol or a loaf of bread it is impossible to read the papers at the moment without some sort of reference to inflation. But it is another type of inflation that has been capturing the imagination of TheLawyer. com users – degree grade inflation.

As reported on last week (17 June), the number of law students graduating with first or upper second-class degrees has rocketed by more than 100 per cent during the past 20 years, according to a new survey published this month. Southampton Solent University topped the survey with the number of LLB students achieving firsts and 2:1s jumping by an astonishing 496.4 per cent between 1987 and 2007. The University of Exeter came in second with an increase of 196.1 per cent, followed by Manchester Metropolitan University, which saw the number of firsts and 2:1s awarded to law students rise by 148.1 per cent during the same period. Other institutions that saw a doubling of the number of LLB students graduating with firsts and 2:1s in the past 20 years include the universities of East Anglia, Glamorgan, Manchester, Middlesex and Newcastle.

So is a law degree worth less today than it was two decades ago? The head of Exeter’s school of law Professor John Usher thinks not. “I don’t think standards have gone down,” he claims. “We’re just attracting better students and our teaching has significantly improved.” A graduate recruitment manager at a leading City firm, meanwhile, argues that although “there’s no doubt A-levels have become easier” it is harder to make such a sweeping generalisation about degrees, because “standards vary so much between universities”.

“That’s why we’ve maintained that, when we look at training contract applications, it’s not just about a candidate’s academic track record – you have to look at every aspect of their application,” continues the graduate recruitment manager.

The minimum entrance requirement for Exeter’s law degree course is 400 Ucas points, which is the equivalent of three A grades at A-level under the old ranking system.

London Metropolitan University, meanwhile, bucked the trend, with the number of its law students achieving top marks during the past 20 years dropping by 22.3 per cent. In contrast to Exeter, London Met’s entrance requirement is 200 Ucas points.

Of the universities that participated in the research, Oxford had the highest number of students (93.1 per cent) graduating with a first or 2:1 last year (see table). Buckinghamshire New University came bottom of the rankings with no students achieving a first or 2:1. Just ahead of Buckinghamshire was London Met, which has 20.9 per cent of its law students graduating with top marks.

The research was conducted by Norman Baird and Clive Campbell Smith, the authors of the legal blog ‘QED Law’. They collected the information by submitting requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.