We’re constantly being told that degrees aren’t as valuable as they used to be. And fair enough. Your mate from home’s 2:2 in film and media studies might not expect to be as valuable as your mum’s desmond in computing from the 80s, but an Imperial degree is an Imperial degree, right?

Perhaps not. FELIX took a look at the number of grades awarded on individual courses and departments between 2009 and 2014 and found that there was a significant increase in the proportion of 2:1s and firsts awarded across most subjects.

The biggest leaps have been in Aeronautics, Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering, but statistically significant increases in the best grades have been seen across most undergraduate courses.

So why is this happening?

Those who graduated in 2009 (having done a four year course) were the last students to pay the now eye-wateringly low £1175 annual fees. Students graduating from 2010 to 2014 were almost certainly paying £3000 a year. £9000 fees were introduced from September 2012, and these students wouldn’t be graduating until 2015 at the earliest, the data from which was not available.

We looked at this difference between the proportion of 2:1s and firsts earnt in 2009 and compared this to the proportion of these grades awarded in 2014, taking into account the increase in students on each course.

Out of the courses we tested, only Bioengineering, Computing, Earth Science and Engineering, and Physics grades have not increased with any statistical significance.

No course has decreased in number of firsts and 2:1s awarded. Every course has increased in size since 2009.

The effective tripling of fees for those who graduated after 2009 may mean that subsequent year groups took their degrees a little more seriously, and really felt the pressure to reach a safe 2:1 or get that holy grail first.

It may help to look at the marking policy of the departments where the degrees awards hasn’t changed. Physics, for example, introduced a scaling algorithm back in 2009 to level the playing field. Part of the reason for scaling, in the department’s own words, is to “prevent the distribution of degree classes from changing unacceptably”. The algorithm was tested on past papers before being implemented, and should not nudge a student’s final degree classification up or down. The system is more a way to combat inconsistency in the difficulty of exams between years, rather than to bump up individual marks. The algorithm is complicated, kind of beautiful if you’re into that and is published on the physics department’s website. Physics has only seen an increase from 82% to 84% over five years, which in this case is statistically unexciting.

The computing department, who also use a scaling algorithm on exams, have not given out particularly more firsts and 2:1s since 2009 either.

The Mathematics department, who have seen a steady climb from 62% to 82% over the five years, had a change in weighting before 2009, with the aim of better reflecting students’ success in the wider choice of modules in their final years. Before this, Maths were actually giving out fewer 2:1s than other departments.

It’s unlikely that any courses are getting easier, and everyone we spoke to agreed that students are working harder, but some said there is variation year on year as to what key topics students have covered in school.

There is variation in ability between year groups

Could students simply be doing better nowadays? Taking Mechanical Engineering as an example, the ratio of applications to admissions for those who graduated in 2009 was the same as for those graduating in 2014, at 5:1. However, the average A Level tariff score on entry jumped from 356 to 557 in that time, probably partially down to the introduction of the A* in 2010. Perhaps it’s simply harder to get onto Imperial courses now.

It’s also important to remember that there is distinct variation in ability between year groups. Any change to weighting or scaling takes a few cohorts before change can be seen and methods can be assessed. Therefore, there’s a limit to how much insight we can gain from a five year sample. Regardless of the good reasoning behind these changes, employers in 2014 could pick more Imperial Mech Eng grads with 2:1s and firsts than in 2009, and so we should still be interested.

How does this compare to the rest of the country? Figures gathered by the Higher Education Statistics agency show that in 2014, there had been a general trend of increasing numbers of firsts and 2:1s being awarded across disciplines. With this, recruiters are looking towards students who not only have the grades but have experiences beyond academia, for example writing for their student newspaper. Just saying.

Chun-Yin San, the union’s Deputy President (Education) told FELIX it was: “important to emphasise is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with more students getting a first or 2:1 classification, and given the reputation of Imperial I don’t see there being a serious risk of ‘devaluation’ as a result of more people attaining good results. Students are certainly not working any less hard, and courses aren’t getting less difficult – if anything they are becoming more challenging”.

We used a cheeky z score calculation to check whether these differences were statistically significant, which is standard in the social sciences for comparing the proportions of two different populations. If you really want to have a look at the data we were working from, email the editor, although it’s all freely available to anyone on Imperial’s website.

This is a continuing investigation. Are you a professor, a dep rep, or just an interested party? If you think you know why grades have changed, email the editor at felix@ic.ac.uk.