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One in four graduates awarded first class degrees after Covid-19 forced cancellation of traditional exams

The number of students graduating with first class degrees shot up last year, in what may be another Covid-19 effect.

he trend is similar to what happened in Leaving Cert results after traditional exams were abandoned because of the pandemic.

On average, almost one in four honours degree graduates – 24pc – left college with a top grade, up from 21pc in 2019, according to new figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Some colleges were well ahead of the average with, for instance, 31pc of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) graduates gaining a first, up from 24pc the previous year.

Meanwhile at the Institute of Art and Design (IADT), Dun Laoghaire, 38pc of final year honours degree students achieved a first, up from 30pc in 2019.

Among the universities below the average figure for first class degrees were University College Dublin (UCD), where 21pc graduates received a first, up from 19pc the previous year, while the University of Limerick (UL) held steady between 2019 and 2020 at 22pc.

Grade inflation has been a feature of higher education, but the improvement in results in 2020 represented a significant step up in a single year. In 2014, 17pc of honour degree graduates achieved a first.

After the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, end of semester face-to-face exams were replaced by a variety of alternative online and remote assessment formats.

The proportion of students achieving a 2:1 also rose last year to an average 50pc, up from 49pc in 2019, while there was a massive year-on-year drop from 31pc to 26pc in those receiving a 2:2.

The HEA data tracks trends over six years and shows that the number of enrolments to higher education has increased by more than 17pc between 2014/15 and 2020/21. There was a 4pc increase between 2019/20 and 2020/21, with 245,600 students overall last year.

The annual statistics also look at other issues such as the route taken to higher education, gender, the qualifications graduates achieve and the course areas that most graduates study.

The number of undergraduate new entrants for 2020/21 increased by 6pc on the previous year to the largest annual number of new entrants to date.

The figures highlight a remarkable widening of the gender gap in terms of who goes to college: in 2014/15, there were 3pc more females but by 2020/21 the gap was 18pc – 132,649 females compared with 112,650 males.

In 2014/15, male new entrants outnumbered female new entrants, while in 2020/21, there were almost 3,600 more female first years.

Recent years have also seen an increase in students entering via the HEAR (Higher Education Access Route) and DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) initiatives, through which places are awarded on lower points for students suffering socio-economic disadvantage or a disability that has impacted on their educational attainment.

Last year 9pc of first years entered via HEAR or DARE, compared with 7pc in 2018/19.

HEA’s head of access policy, Caitríona Ryan, said considering the huge impact of Covid-19 on Leaving Cert students in 2020, it was positive that there has been an increase in students entering via DARE and HEAR.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen in the drop in the number of international enrolments, which decreased by 12pc in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20, although numbers from EU countries and the UK saw a small rise.

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