Universities accused of lowering degree standards

Author: By Alison Kershaw, PA

In a stinging attack, a Commons select committee said it was “unacceptable”
that the higher education sector receives £15 billion of public funding, but
are unable to answer “straightforward” questions about the worth of degrees
at different universities.

The damning report which looked at students’ university experiences said:
“There needs to be a change of culture at the top in higher education.

“At several points we encountered what could be characterised as defensive
complacency.

“We found no appetite whatsoever to investigate important questions such as
the reasons for the steady increase in the proportion of first class and
upper second class honours degrees over the past 15 years or the variation
in study time by students taking the same subjects at different
universities.”

The cross-party group of MPs found that the proportion of graduates awarded a
first class degree rose from 7.7% in 1996/97 to 13.3% in 2007/08.

And they concluded that it appears that “different levels of effort” are
required in different universities in order to obtain similar degrees.

This “may suggest that different standards may be being applied,” the report
said.

The MPs said they were “uneasy” that some universities say that the fact that
international students want to study at British universities is evidence
that standards are being maintained.

“We conclude that it is simplistic and unsatisfactory for higher education
institutions to be seen to rely on the fact that international students
continue to apply as evidence that standards are being maintained,” the
report said.

“It is absurd and disreputable to justify academic standards with a market
mechanism.”

The report says that the current system for protecting standards is out of
date and inconsistent.

It calls for the Quality Assurance Agency, a universities watchdog, to be
re-established as Quality and Standards Agency, with responsibility for
monitoring and reporting on standards.

Under this change, universities would have their accreditation to award
degrees reviewed every 10 years.

The wide-ranging report also says the current fee and support system
discriminates against part-time and mature students, and the upcoming fee
review must address this.

It adds that the current bursary system for poor students is unfair, as
students from the same backgrounds receive different financial packages
depending on the university they attend.

A national bursary system based on need should be established instead, it
says.

Phil Willis MP, chairman of the innovation, universities and skills committee,
said: “To remain competitive in the 21st century the complacency we detected
must be addressed.

“We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there
is a reluctance to address this issue. The QAA needs radical transformation
if we as a country are going to meet the needs of a 21st century higher
education system with two million students.”

But Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, said it was
“disappointed” with the report.

UUK chief executive Diana Warwick said: “While there are some useful
recommendations in this report, we are disappointed that so much of the work
that universities are doing to improve the student experience has been
ignored, and that the picture being painted of the higher education sector
in many areas is so negative.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of top universities,
said: “We are rather dismayed and surprised by this outburst when
vice-chancellors have engaged in hours of discussion with MPs over these
issues.”

Professor Paul Wellings, chair of the 1994 Group of universities, said: “We
support flexible and diverse higher education provision which allows the
sector to meet the wide range of differing needs of students, government,
businesses and communities.

“However, we must ensure that throughout this diverse range of provision the
very highest quality of academic experience is maintained.”

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said: “I don’t recognise the committee’s
description of our higher education sector, which is in fact world class and
second only to the USA as a top destination for overseas students.

“We are also seeing record applications from our own students, who value the
benefits of a UK degree.”

Shadow universities minister David Willetts said: “Higher education is
improving rapidly across the world and this report is a wake-up call for the
sector as well as for ministers.

“Our universities are excellent, but there is a risk that we will be overtaken
by other countries if we refuse to face the big challenges on standards, the
student experience, funding and widening access.”

Liberal Democrat universities spokesman Stephen Williams said: “There is
clearly a concern that parts of the higher education sector are not facing
up to some of the serious issues which risk undermining our universities’
world class status.

“Universities often raise the issue of grade inflation in GCSEs and A-Levels
so they should not be afraid of examining degree classification to ensure
that standards are high.”

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