Degrees 'need a benchmark'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Minimum standards for what constitutes a university degree or a graduate in the hugely expanded modern university system were called for yesterday by the Government's adviser on higher education.

Degree courses which did not reach these minimum standards would, by implication, lose their funding and students who do not possess graduate attributes would not get a degree.

In a far-reaching report on graduate standards published yesterday, the Higher Education Quality Council says it is now impossible to know whether degrees in the same subject at different universities are comparable.

The HEQC report is the first attempt to promote nationally accepted threshold standards in the university system. It follows the enormous expansion of the university sector when the polytechnics became universities in 1992. There are now 104 universities, four times the number there were in the early 1960s, and 1.5 million students, six times the number 30 years ago.

On top of this there has been a proliferation of new subjects taught at university and a huge change in the entrance tickets held by students. The typical student of the early 1960s was middle to upper class, from a public school or grammar school, and had two A levels. Now a much wider band of social background and ability go to university.

The lecturers, too, are less homogeneous. Put together, it means the old system of comparing standards, in which lecturers from one institution act as external examiners at another, is no longer effective.

Dr Peter Wright, assistant director of the HEQC, said yesterday: "Standards may be rising, they may be falling. One cannot tell. The outcomes of higher education must be made much more explicit. We are not saying they must all be the same, but we do need to know what is genuine diversity and what is an inappropriate variation in standards."

8 Graduate Standards Programme. Interim Report. Higher Education Quality Council, pounds 10. Available from the Support Section, UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 3SH.