Sir Ron Dearing's year-long national committee of inquiry into higher education, publishing its 1,700-page report this afternoon, has concluded that the risk of declining degree quality is the central issue facing the sector.
If graduates are to repay up to pounds 3,000 towards the cost of their courses - a change proposed by the committee and already accepted by the Government - minimum standards must be guaranteed in return for their investment, the report will say. It will set down a series of measures, including introduction of threshold standards for all higher-education qualifications, irrespective of the institution offering them, and compulsory training for all lecturers entering higher education.
Under the proposals, universities would be expected to make clear to potential students the precise content and outcomes of their courses. The honours-degree classification system of firsts, seconds and thirds might be scrapped and replaced with a pass/fail system, under which graduates would also receive a "script" or report, showing the knowledge and skills they had acquired.
The committee will stop short of suggesting standards have already declined during the recent expansion of higher education, which has seen numbers of young people going to university rise from around one in 20 in the early Sixties to more than one in three today.
But it will make clear that the issue of maintaining quality can be ignored "at our peril". As universities face a pounds 3bn cash shortfall, the Government cannot duck the issue of funding, but there is a danger the problem of standards could be "fudged" unless steps are taken quickly, the committee is expected to say.
The Dearing report, Higher Education in the Learning Society, is the most important analysis of higher education since the Robbins report of 1964. The latest study, like its predecessor, calls for expansion in the sector, but suggests the biggest growth area is likely to be in sub-degree courses such as Higher National Diplomas and Certificates. Further-education colleges, many of which already offer HNCs, may see much of the expansion, the committee will say.
It will propose a more flexible system of qualifications which allow students to leave study for work and then return later.
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