Universities have been told they must explain increases in 2.1 and first class degrees, and if they cannot do so they should look to limit the number of top degrees.

New data from Universities UK (UUK) shows four in five universities are now looking at the way they calculate degree classes to control inflation.

UUK said in a briefing published on Friday that some of the increases in top degrees “reflect genuine student improvements and better teaching methods and assessment”.

But it added: “Where providers can’t easily explain the increases, they should look at their data and policies to understand and then – if necessary – reduce the trend.”

UUK said it “can’t ignore” the increase from 61% to 82% in 2.1 and first class degrees between 2006–07 and 2019–20, although it noted in 2018–19 the proportion of top degrees began to level off at 76%, “with no increase from the previous year”.

In a survey of 44 universities, it found 81% have committed to reviewing the way they calculate degrees, analysing demographic or subject area trends, exploring the impact of Covid-19 and giving external examiners more responsibility to look at degree standards over time.

It comes as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is due to publish the latest data on degree classes awarded in 2020/21, including whether the number of firsts have increased.

There has been growing concern over the proportion of top degrees awarded in recent years, with UUK pledging to take action on inflation.

In July 2020, UUK and GuildHE, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, committed to six principles to tackle degree inflation, which included the need to be transparent with students about how classes are calculated, as well as how they have performed against learning outcomes.

In a report from UUK at the time, it said universities should limit the amount of rounding up for borderline degree classifications, while discounting core and final-year modules from a student’s degree award should be avoided.

HESA data shows that in 2019/20, 35% of students at UK universities graduated with a first, compared to 28% in 2018/19 and more than double the 14% who gained a first in 2009/10.

The University of Exeter said on Friday that in 2020–21 it undertook research to explore the impact on degree classes of its “safety net” policy brought in during the pandemic.

The policy calculated a benchmark for individual students based on their grades prior to the pandemic.

The research found most students did not need to use the “safety net” and of those who did, just 1.4% of UK final-year students saw a change in their degree class.

UUK said: “The policy achieved its aim as students more likely to have been impacted socially and economically by the pandemic benefited the most.”