The number of first-class degrees awarded has dropped for the first time after a campaign against ratings inflation during the Covid pandemic.
It is the first time HESA has recorded a drop in the number of first-class titles awarded since it was founded in 1993.
However, the percentage is still higher than before the pandemic.
It comes after England’s universities committed last July to reverse degree inflation, following the introduction of policies to mitigate the impact of the Covid disruption, including open book exams.
UK universities and GuildHE promised that by 2023 they would bring the ratio of upper second-class to first-class degrees back in line with pre-pandemic levels.
In 2021/22, 32 per cent of undergraduate degrees received first-class honours, a drop of four percentage points from 36 per cent the year before, HESA said.
However, 46% of students obtained upper second class degrees in 2021/22, the same proportion as in 2020/21.
The total number of higher education students increased by four percent to 2,862,620, while there was a two percent increase in freshman enrollment.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), welcomed the reduction in first-class titles.
The OfS had previously warned that grade inflation could negatively affect students, a warning echoed by Michelle Donelan, the then education minister.
‘Welcome decline to pre-pandemic levels’
Lapworth said: “Today’s figures show a welcome decline towards pre-pandemic levels in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded to students graduating in the 2021-22 academic year.
“Last year, members of Universities UK and GuildHE committed to addressing the growing proportion of first class and upper second degrees and committed to returning to pre-pandemic qualification levels.
“We welcome that commitment and will continue to monitor trends in ratings to understand factors that may contribute to sector performance.
“If left unchecked, qualification inflation can erode public confidence and it is important that the OfS can and does intervene when in doubt about the credibility of qualifications.
“Universities and colleges understand that they must ensure that the degrees they award are credible and adequately represent student achievement. This is the way to maintain the confidence of students, employers and the general public in the qualifications of higher education”.
HESA statistics released on Thursday also show a significant change in the origin of foreign students.
The number of non-EU domiciled first-year students increased by 32% compared to 2020/21, and the number of students from India increased by 50%.
In total, there were 350,325 non-EU domiciled first-year participants, of whom 126,535 were from India.
By contrast, the number of immigrants domiciled in the EU fell by 53 percent.