Universities in England have committed to reversing pandemic grade inflation in first and 2.1 degrees.

In a first of its kind statement Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE members have committed to return to pre-pandemic levels of ‘upper’ degree classification by 2023.

Measures to ensure students were not unfairly disadvantaged during the unique circumstances of the pandemic contributed to increases in the proportion of first and 2.1 undergraduate degree awards.

Students achieving one of the two highest degree grades rocketed from 63 per cent in the 2016-17 academic year to 82% in 2019-20.

While the figures achieving a first or 2:1 remained unchanged from 2016 to 2019, the proportion rose by six per cent across 2019-20, with firsts climbing from 28 per cent to 35 per cent of degrees classifications.

Today’s statement recognises that grade inflation which cannot be explained by the developments in teaching and learning that combined with students’ hard work to improve results in the prior decade, risk undermining student, employer and public confidence in the system.

Universities say they will will take the pre-pandemic year of 2019 as a benchmark for the commitment, when proactive action by universities to protect the value of degrees was leading to a levelling-off in the percentage of students achieving upper degree awards.

By the end of 2022, members of UUK and GuildHE in England will publish degree outcome statements, setting out actions to return to pre-pandemic levels of classification. The outcome statements, which will also include a review of progress against actions previously committed to, will be published on the UUK website with links to each institution’s statement as an effective list of signatories.

UUK and GuildHE will evaluate and update on progress in early 2023.

Higher education minister Michelle Donelan said: “I’m delighted to have worked with Universities UK and GuildHE on this landmark statement – the first time ever that universities have made a commitment of this nature.

“Just as the government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-Level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable. Together, we are taking action to restore high standards across our education system.

“Hardworking students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”

Universities will also report progress to their governing bodies.

However the issue of grade inflation has not been limited to universities. Last month the House of Commons public accounts committee complained that the Department of Education “failed to adequately assess the current and future financial impacts” of the “substantial grade inflation” that resulted from local assessment in place of A-level exams during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant more students were able to take up places at high-tariff providers, and many medium- and low-tariff and specialist providers were undersubscribed.

Schools have been warned to expect a fall in grades after the pandemic-era rises.