Fears over grade inflation for first-class degrees has led to the universities’ watchdog to threaten fines on institutions found to be doing so.

The threat comes after the proportion of first-class degrees increased to 27% from 16% in just six years.

Now the Office for Students (OfS) is threatening to fine or remove universities from the official register if spiralling degree grade inflation is not tackled.

The OfS has revealed the size of the issue which affects most institutions in the sector, with 84% of universities having unexplained growth in the numbers of first-class degrees being awarded.

From the OfS data, the University of Surrey has seen its proportion for firsts doubling in six years to 50% from 23%.

However, Bradford University has seen its first-class degrees trebling to nearly 40%.

Now the OfS is calling on universities to address the problem urgently and is warning that it will impose severe sanctions for those failing to do so.

‘Spiralling grade inflation will risk undermining public confidence’

The chief executive of the OfS, Nichola Dandridge, said: “The report shows there’s been unexplained and significant grade inflation since 2010. This spiralling grade inflation will risk undermining public confidence in the system.”

The OfS says that one condition that all universities must adhere to is that the qualification being awarded must its value at ‘qualification and over time’.

The announcement follows growing concern among government ministers over the increasing proportion of first and also for upper-second class degrees being awarded by universities.

The research highlights that over the six-year period analysed, the proportion of firsts and 2:1’s combined grew to 78% from 67%.

OfS to ‘crackdown’ on institutions

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, is now calling on the OfS to ‘crackdown’ on those institutions that it finds to have inflated grades.

Mr Hinds said: “I hope today’s research acts as a wake-up call for the sector, particularly those universities that are exposed as having unexplained significant increases.”

The OfS data also highlights that for those students who enter universities with lower A-level results are also seeing an increase in numbers receiving first-class degrees.

The research reveals that for graduates who received the equivalent at A-Level of two C’s and a D are nearly three times more likely to receive first-class honours in 2016/17 compared with those graduates six years previously.

The chief executive of Universities UK, which is the body representing 137 universities, Alistair Jarvis, says the sector is taking steps for tackling grade inflation.

He said it is also important that the ‘public has confidence in the value of a degree’.