The rising proportion of top level degrees being awarded could be evidence of grade inflation and may result in an overhaul of the way universities mark students' work, a new study has suggested.
Over a quarter – 26% – of students are now graduating with a first-class degree, up from 18% in 2012-2013, according to the report led by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA).
It pointed to a number of possible factors that contribute to more higher classification degrees being awarded, including the wish to perform well in league tables and heightened student motivation.
UKSCQA, which provides sector-led oversight of quality and standards arrangements across UK higher education, said on Tuesday it was launching a UK-wide consultation to gain feedback on how the recommendations in its report can be developed and implemented in order to protect the value of qualifications over time.
The decision to launch a consultation was welcomed by the education secretary Damian Hinds, who said: "We want and expect to see results improve over time, but the scale of this increase in firsts and 2:1s cannot be proportionate to improving standards."
The report, which was co-authored by Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, suggested an increased proportion of upper degrees risks undermining the value of higher education among students, employers and society.
Mr Hinds said: "A key strength of our higher education sector is its independence, but with that comes responsibility.
"I am looking to universities to tackle this issue and have asked the Office for Students to focus on tackling grade inflation and firmly deal with any institution found to be unreasonably inflating grades."
Among the report's recommendations were that institutions review and publish evidence on their degree outcomes at the institutional level.
It also suggested a common criteria to be agreed, to be used by all universities, to describe the quality of work required for each degree classification.
Another recommendation suggests explaining scoring systems and processes that universities follow to determine a student's final degree classification in an accessible format.
Professor Andrew Wathey, vice chancellor of the University of Northumbria and chairman of the UKSCQA, said: "This report shows that there is a clear need for the higher education sector to take action to grip the issue of grade inflation, and to demonstrate its ability to maintain the value of a UK qualification.
"These proposals will need meaningful engagement from the higher education sector as it considers how best to take them forward in national contexts while ensuring the overarching integrity of a UK-wide system."