Page last updated at 13:32 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 14:32 UK

Moves to tighten degree scrutiny

John Denham
Mr Denham said universities' reputations could suffer

There are moves to lower the threshold at which concerns about university standards trigger a watchdog inquiry.

England's universities secretary John Denham wants to see a system that can respond more quickly and flexibly.

He told the Universities UK conference that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) was in talks on the issue with the higher education funding council.

The QAA is concerned it needs too much evidence and there is too long a process before inspectors can go in.


Mr Denham told delegates at the UUK conference, in Cambridge: "There's an issue about the threshold of the quantity of evidence needed to be brought together before the 'cause for concern' procedure can be executed.

"It is my desire to have a system that can respond more quickly and flexibly when a complaint is made."

He added: "I do want to see the QAA in a position where it is able to respond much more proactively and quickly to reports that give rise to such concerns."

Earlier this year the BBC News website highlighted a whistleblower's concerns that degrees were being awarded to overseas students who spoke almost no English.

Among other issues, university staff were caught pressuring students to dishonestly answer an official funding council survey of student satisfaction.

An external examiner who judged that a university course had not reached the necessary standard was persuaded to change her mind.

And a leaked e-mail showed university staff being urged to increase the number of top degree grades to keep pace with competing universities.

Mr Denham said such reports could have been damaging to the reputation of English universities internationally.

QAA chief executive Peter Williams himself has warned of problems with degree grades, external examiners and the over-recruitment of overseas students.

And the chair of the universities select committee, Phil Willis, has said the threat to quality is the most serious issue facing higher education.

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