Degree classification in 2019-20

Briefing paper coverThe Covid-19 pandemic created significant disruption across the higher education sector in the 2019–20 academic year. Universities successfully shifted to digital delivery and implemented significant changes to teaching, learning and assessment. 

Data released in January 2021 showed that across the UK, there had been an increase of upper awards in 2019–20.

This briefing examines the various factors that may have contributed to this.


Key points:

  • In the face of the global pandemic, universities made rapid changes to move to online teaching, learning and assessment, enabling 492,355 students to complete their studies and graduate (HESA, 2021d).
  • Across the UK, there was a six-percentage point increase of upper awards (first-class and 2:1 awards) in 2019–20. The proportion of first-class awards rose to over a third (35%) (HESA, 2021a).
  • In unprecedented circumstances, universities ensured that the changing situation and digital poverty did not unfairly disadvantage students by introducing emergency regulations and policies including no detriment and safety net policies and expanding online student support.
  • Many universities reported increased engagement of students with online teaching, learning and assessment and innovative approaches to course design and delivery.
  • Universities are committed to protecting the value of degrees and put in place strong quality and standards mechanisms through robust academic governance processes.
  • Analysis shows that despite the disruption, 2019–20 saw a narrowing of attainment gaps for the graduating cohort by deprivation, gender, disability and ethnicity.
  • As part of the higher education sector’s covenant to protect quality and standards, universities will be analysing their results to better understand the drivers of degree classification changes in 2019–20, including through future revisions of degree outcomes statements in England and Wales.
  • Universities are also considering what lessons can be learnt on the benefits of digital teaching and learning, new approaches to assessment, and online student support services.


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