There has been a significant increase in the number of students graduating from Irish third level institutions with First-Class Honours and the level has reached record levels.

Last year, almost a quarter of students (23.5%) graduating achieved First-Class Honours. That compares to 16% just two years earlier in 2019 – an almost 50% increase.

The figures come at a time when grade inflation at Leaving Certificate level has come under great scrutiny and been heavily criticised, not least by leaders in the universities sector.

The Higher Education Authority data is based on information supplied to it by the institutions. The overall figure of 23.5% covers all programmes, including masters and degree courses.

The data shows that one-in-five undergraduate students were awarded First-Class Honours degrees last year, and almost 30% of postgraduates, up from 14% and 20% respectively seven years earlier.

The HEA has declined to comment on what might be driving the increase but a staff member said it was something they "need to continue to monitor".

The University of Galway is awarding the highest number of First-Class Honours, with more than 40% of its graduates achieving one.

In 2015 just 24% of the university's students received firsts. In 2019, 32% got the top mark.

Among the larger third level institutions, at the University of Limerick 36% of graduates were awarded the top qualification last year. This compares to 28% two years earlier, and 23% in 2015.

University College Cork awarded firsts to 32.5% of its students last year.

When it comes to the country's two largest third level universities, UCD is awarding First-Class Honours to 23.5% and at TU Dublin the rate is 20%.

Some 17% of students graduating from Trinity College Dublin are leaving with First-Class Honours qualifications.

When it comes to fields of study, students in the fields of information technology and science and maths are the most likely to leave college with the top qualification.

Some 36% of students on ICT courses are graduating with firsts, and 30% of students on science or mathematics courses.

This compares to just 7% of students on courses classified under "services". This category includes courses in tourism, leisure and catering.