Page last updated at 14:11 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 15:11 UK

'Farce' warning on degree levels

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Phil Willis
Phil Willis questioned how universities could decide their own grades

The lack of certainty over the value of university degrees is "descending into farce," says the chair of a committee of MPs investigating degree standards.

Phil Willis challenged the university standards watchdog, Peter Williams, about fears of inflated degree grades.

"You're saying an institution can award as many firsts as it wants as long as it satisfies its own criteria of what a first means," said Mr Willis.

Mr Williams defended the need for universities' autonomy over degrees.

But Mr Williams, head of the Quality Assurance Agency, faced further scrutiny over how it was acceptable that universities could be assessed without objective comparisons with other institutions.

What value was there for employers, students or taxpayers in such an ambiguous system, MPs wanted to know.


"There is no common definition of what a first is," Mr Williams told the House of Commons select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills.

The committee of MPs challenged the uncertainty about degree standards

"There is no evidence of consistency between subjects or departments or between institutions," said the watchdog.

Evan Harris said there would be "outrage" if it were similarly discovered that A-levels from different awarding bodies were not of equal rigour or value.

The Oxford West MP challenged the idea that university autonomy was a valid reason for not having any comparability between universities' standards, when these were publicly-funded bodies.

Mr Williams repeated his criticism of the degree classification system which he says is no longer "fit for purpose" - and cautioned that degrees were not national courses or exams and that standards were individual to each institution.

As such it was possible for universities to decide how many degrees were awarded at upper levels - as long as they matched the rules set by the university themselves.

The questioning followed the recent leak of an e-mail in which academics were reminded by a manager of the importance of increasing the number of first class degrees.

Committee chairman Mr Willis pressed the head of the Quality Assurance Agency on its credibility in maintaining public confidence in university standards - asking him whether it was a "toothless" organisation.

No complaints

Mr Williams, rejecting such a claim, set out an action plan which would include a more high-profile approach to encouraging academics and students to raise any "causes for concern".

So far, Mr Williams told MPs, not a single cause for concern had ever been raised by either students, academics, employers or universities. The only case raised had been from a funding council and related to a higher education course at a further education college.

The committee of MPs also sought to establish how many universities or departments were currently assessed to be below standard - and were told that at present there was not a single institution in such a category.

Mr Williams emphasised that the agency was not a research organisation that could carry out comparative tests on standards - or any kind of Ofsted-type watchdog that could effectively force a school to close.

With the advantages of the diversity and independence of universities, came an autonomy over setting degree grades.

In terms of providing an outside verification of standards, Mr Williams pointed to the external examiner system. But this was dismissed by MP Rob Wilson, who said "a lot of people think it's a case of getting in their mates to shore up what's going on".


Evan Harris highlighted the risk to standards when some universities were now financially dependent on funds from overseas students.

Mr Williams rejected the suggestion that rules could be bent to give degrees to such overseas students - but cautioned that the "unsustainable" scale of recruitment ran the risk of creating "overseas universities within the UK".

Speaking after the hearing, Mr Willis said that he thought that the system for assuring university standards was likely to need "major surgery" and he looked forward to seeing how the QAA might develop its plans.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said universities also recognised that the degree classification system has reached the end of its "display-by" date.

The university group says that 20 higher education institutions will be trialling a different way of classifying achievement, to be known as Higher Education Achievement Report, from the autumn.

The hearing by the select committee followed a series of whistleblower stories and large numbers of responses from academics expressing deep concerns about the way that degrees are assessed and awarded.

This has included claims about overseas students who can barely speak English being awarded postgraduate degrees, questions about the credibility of the external examiner system and the inflation of grades to improve the image of institutions.

Please send your comments using the box below.

For several years I was an external examiner at a local university although I was not employed by any academic institution. Exams, perhaps for as few as 10 or 20 students were set and marked by the lecturers who delivered the courses. Often questions given to students as coursework would appear as exam questions a few weeks or months later. It is difficult to think of other circumstances in which such cosy certification arrangements can apply. The Select Committee is quite right to pursue this issue - the whole system of university examining needs substantial reform.
David Mell, Durham

I retired from a senior position at a large university two years ago. I had direct responsibility for quality assurance and from a long career in higher education know a great deal about the system generally. An area the Committee ought to focus upon in regard to the QAA is the role of external examiners. In theory they are the defenders of the gold standard and unique in European Higher Education. I have severe reservations about their efficacy and would for example want to know why the QAA does not even today have a national register of such examiners and a means by knowing they are completely disinterested. In reality institutional back scratching is rife and these useful additional earners are circulated between universities in a closed circle where implicitly their role is not to be too critical or unhelpful. They are supposed to be the means by which objectivity and comparability are achieved,
Francis, Leeds, England

I teach a numerate discipline in a 'Post-92 University' and I would welcome some form of cross-university exam that was independently marked. This would mean I would have to teach to an externally defined syllabus, which wouldn't be so much fun, but I think it is increasingly difficult to justify internally where the line between pass/fail (and first/second) should be drawn.
James, London

I am an external examiner for at a major university and take the glib comments by Rob Wilson as being downright insulting. External examiners are appointed from another institution for a finite period of time, normally three years. They take their role very seriously and ensure that learning objectives are being met and that grades awarded have parity with other universities in the UK. As for international students having their grades inflated, at my university all work is marked without the marker knowing who the student is let alone if they are a home or international student.
Steve, Gloucester

Phil Willis is dead right. When I was at university 35 years ago first were rare and awarded to exceptional students, at less than one a year (I didn't get one...). I just heard that my old Department awarded 30 firsts this year...
John K, Exeter

I have worked in administration positions with close contact with students at a former polytechnic, art college and 'Russell Group' university. I honestly think by and large examinations across higher education institutions are fair. There will always be the odd exception, but I have seen first hand the efforts that academic staff go to to ensure fair assessment and grading. I saw huge efforts to combat plagiarism (which is rife at all universities with the advent of the internet) at the former poly. At the art college, I saw the sheer length of time that examiners took to carefully evaluate work on a completely anonymous basis. At the Russell Group institution I have recently witnessed examiners prepared to turn down an overseas PhD student at the viva stage, because her methodology was fundamentally flawed. Contrary to popular opinion you cannot just sit in the student union bar for 3 years these days and come out at the end of it with a first. You have to do genuine hard work.
Charlotte, Cambridge

What muddies the waters is the number of 'mickey mouse' degrees being offered with no effective comparison. Is a first in say Tourism from one institution worth the same as a first in say 'Football Management' from the same or another institution?
Stuart, Halifax, West Yorkshire

At last a political response to one of the great scandals! Universities have been accepting public money and student fees while selling a pig in a poke. It is time that what they do and how they do it was opened to scrutiny.
James, Corwen

Degree classifications (first, upper second, lower second, third, fail) mean rather little when you consider the mark range typically used to define them: first, anything from 70% upwards; upper second, from 60% to 69%; lower second, 50% to 59%; third, 40% to 49%; fail, anything below 40%. That's just 30 marks to sort the sheep from the goats. Examiners are often resolutely reluctant to give much more than 70%, notwithstanding requests from university managements to 'use the whole mark range at your disposal'. So the interpretation of these grades tends to go like this: First - excellent, outstanding, might one day go on to do research and become one of us; upper second - above average, maybe even just below outstanding; lower second was there and completed the course without major mishap; third - was usually there but struggled, or did quite well when he/she was actually there, which wasn't often; fail - well, either sadly or pathetically or even proudly hopeless. Until we come up with a more intelligent, and more intelligible, system - perhaps by looking across the Atlantic - we'll be stuck with problems like the ones described here. That and doing something about our incurable desire to grade universities (like schools) into league tables as if they were football teams.
Professor Mike Newby, Exmouth, Devon

With a few exceptions students with the best grades typically 3As go to the most competitive universities and those with the least good grades go to the least difficult to get into. I don't think anybody assumes that after three years the first awarded to the top 15% of students at say Oxbridge, Bristol, Durham, LSE, Imperial, UCL etc means the same level of ability as that awarded to the top 15% of a university where few students entered with grades above 3Cs. How could it?
Jane, Guildford

Universities have a long history of looking after their own interests and the present farcical situation really is different only in its scale. Universities are competing both for funds and for students and both are attracted by good academic results - that is, a high proportion of firsts. Grade inflation is almost inevitable, except perhaps in those lucky institutions with a long-established name. The system of external examiners simply means that they get in friends who will understand the situation and not upset the applecart. The only solution is to override the notion of universities being "autonomous" and insist on at least a common core of examination papers for any given degree subject.
James, Canterbury

The problem is the tendency of all aspects of modern Britain to move towards a market paradigm. As long as universities see themselves as businesses and students as customers then standards will continue to fall. There should be an increase in government sponsorship for universities so that they don't have to make themselves more attractive to sudents/customers by increasing the chances of getting a first.
Michael, Belfast

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