Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 17:59 UK

MPs asked to probe degree 'fraud'

Mr Willis says the reputation of UK universities is at stake

An influential committee of MPs is to be asked to investigate allegations about degree standards in the UK.

The head of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee, Phil Willis, has spoken of practices tantamount to fraud.

Now he says he will ask his committee to probe claims that foreign students gain qualifications despite having a poor grasp of English.

Also on the agenda would be the way that academic standards are checked.

'Tarnished reputation'

Last week the BBC News website reported claims by a whistleblowing academic about overseas students.

Mr Willis expressed his concern at the time, calling on the government to take the issue seriously.

He has now told the BBC: "I think so serious is the issue of what I think is academic fraud that I am hoping to be able to persuade my committee to take this on to investigate the veracity of what is happening in our universities and to make sure we maintain the gold standard."

He added: "If my committee doesn't do that and the government doesn't take up the challenge then what we will see is a tarnished reputation for some of our finest universities."

Readers' responses to the original claims have since led to questions being asked about the system of external examiners.

Universities had said this system provided independent verification of their practices; insiders say they sometimes get friendly academics to give them a clean bill of health.

Among other complaints about what sometimes happens, a head of department at a university in the prestigious Russell Group has said that students with little academic ability but plenty of cash can in effect "buy" a PhD.

Supervisors re-write their work and find lenient external examiners to ensure a pass, claims this academic.

In keeping with many who have written to the BBC, the academic does not wish to be identified publicly - which raises questions about how effective any inquiry by a select committee might be.

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