Australia Today

Is Your High Distinction Worth Less Than it Was 10 Years Ago?

According to a landmark study from the University of Sydney, more than a quarter of uni students are now achieving top grades. 
Arielle Richards
Melbourne, AU
university grade inflation
The study was undertaken at Sydney University, but researchers say the results could be applied to any Australian university. Photo by 

John van Hasselt - Corbis / Contributor via getty images.

New research has shown the number of high distinctions awarded to university students is up more than 200 per cent. According to the landmark study from the University of Sydney, more than a quarter of uni students are now achieving top grades. 

The study’s authors say the dramatic increase in students receiving top marks is indicative of grade inflation, and raises concerns around university integrity.


The research found a 234 per cent increase in the number of high distinctions awarded to students over a decade from 2011 to 2021. In 2011, the average student scoring 68, a credit (C), was by 2021 achieving a grade of 75, a distinction. The study found 64 per cent of students were achieving distinctions (Ds) or high distinctions (HDs).

The study compared 599,455 individual undergraduate marks from students enrolled in 127 different degrees in eight faculties. It analysed changes in average grades among students with similar ATAR scores over the period of a decade. International students weren’t surveyed.

The study is currently a working paper submitted to a conference, and has not yet been peer-reviewed, however its authors said the results confirm the existence of grade inflation in Australia. They said while the survey was undertaken using Sydney University data, the results could be applied to any Australian university.

Grade inflation has been a topic of concern over previous years. The switch from in-person learning to online during the pandemic altered the way coursework was marked and provoked an upsurge in students applying for academic consideration. An increased demand for university degrees in the job market has prompted increased pressure on students to achieve high scores, and students are more likely to appeal low marks with their lecturers.


The study also surveyed teachers to get a sense of the driving factors behind grade inflation. Staff reported that the desire to avoid conflict with students, to achieve higher student satisfaction, concern over their own career progression, or avoiding the workload of student complaints could be behind the results.

Sydney University said it wasn’t possible to meaningfully compare results from 2011-2021, due to changes in the institution’s grading model in 2012.

“Our data shows the number of HDs approximately doubled, distinction and credit grades were relatively stable, pass rates decreased by around 25 per cent and fail grades remained stable, with a small increase during the long lockdown of 2021,” a spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald.

But study co-author Craig Mellare, lecturer at Sydney University’s business school, said the study only included grades meeting a specific criteria to control for student ability, which explains the difference from the university’s own figures, which also include international students.

“What our model tells us is if two students who have the same ATAR, go into the same degree and are the same gender, then the student who was at the end of that sample is going to get a mark 7.2 points higher than the one at the start of the sample,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“We’re now getting close to the average mark being a distinction,” he said.

Arielle Richards is the multimedia reporter at VICE Australia, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.