Two months ago Susanne Haselgrove, pro vice chancellor in charge of academic affairs at Thames Valley University, penned a three-page memo to staff about arrangements for student resits. A former polytechnic, Thames Valley had a problem. Last year lecturers belonging to the college lecturers' union, NATFHE, took industrial action over contracted hours which meant students' work wasn't being marked.
The result was that information on which student performance was usually judged was seriously lacking. In the absence of vice chancellor Mike Fitzgerald who was ill, Ms Haselgrove issued an instruction that students who had scored 30 per cent or more should be considered to have passed and given a mark of 40 per cent. "Our processes unravelled over the summer as a result of which we had major difficulties," says Dr Fitzgerald.
The university is adamant there was never any intention to "dumb down" its degrees. The only reason Ms Haselgrove took action was in the interests of students who might have suffered through no fault of their own. The instruction to pass students who might otherwise have failed has now been rescinded and students are being told they will have to resit at some future date.
The saga has, as one Thames Valley academic put it, been an "horrendous cock-up" for staff and students. But it has also rattled other universities who are afraid of being tarred by association. Professor Geoffrey Alderman, pro vice chancellor in charge of quality assurance at Middlesex University, says: "No one in the sector can be happy at what happened at Thames Valley even though the instruction was not carried out. Thames Valley owes it to the sector to make damn certain that this never happens again."
The Coalition of Modern Universities, representing 26 new universities, discussed the row in closed session at its last meeting. A spokesman said: "All our members are committed to quality. Any lapses in this are a disappointment to the higher education sector. We expect every institution to ensure high standards. If these are not met, action must be taken to rectify the situation."
Thames Valley is not the only university to have run into this kind of trouble. Two years ago the University of Westminster got into hot water when it raised the marks of 3,000 of its students by six per cent because of disruption caused by building work at its Harrow campus.
All educational institutions allow for more lenient marking for students in special and individual circumstances, for example in cases of bereavement, but blanket compensation is usually frowned upon. Professor Alan Smithers, director of Brunel University's centre for education and employment, argues that lowering pass marks is not justified. A degree shows that a student has achieved something, whatever the circumstances. That is why pass marks should not be tampered with.
But the whole question of standards in higher education is nebulous. There are no minimum entry requirements to universities. In the old days the "old" universities had a convention that two A level passes were necessary. That was never mandatory, however. The new universities - the former polytechnics - never insisted on traditional entry requirements because they wanted to open their doors to bright people who had missed out on education earlier on. That means universities today accept students whom they think will benefit from a course.
With the new funding arrangements - money flows with bums on seats - universities have been under increasing pressure to fill all available places. If they don't, they lose cash. That has led to some institutions competing fiercely for the available students, admitting those with one A level or less to access courses in the hope that they will qualify for a degree course.
Paul Gallagher, principal of Bradford and Ilkley College, claims the entry qualifications for some universities have been lowered to a point that he would regard as unacceptable for further education colleges. "We are getting requests from universities to write references for students who have failed GNVQs," he says.
It is not only the entry standards to universities that have changed. The output has changed too. Thirty years ago, when a relatively small elite was going to university but they all had two A levels, only 20 per cent were achieving good degrees, firsts and 2(i)s. Last year, when the number of full and part-time university entrants had reached 1.6 million, of whom only just over one-half had two A levels, as many as 50 per cent of students were receiving firsts and 2(i)s.
Professor Smithers says: "There are some very dozy people getting degrees at the moment. And employers ought to be on their toes about it."
Marking practices in individual university departments are usually a secret garden. Last year, however, a retired academic in mathematics at Loughborough University spoke to Education+ about his concerns. The department was adjusting marks to achieve preordained levels without genuinely considering actual standards, said Stan Sherman, who retired last year.
Marks were being changed to meet the department's policy that no more than 10 per cent of students should fail and that marks should fall within a mean of 50 to 60 per cent, he claimed. As a result Mr Sherman refused to sign the mark-sheets for two modules. In one case, students with marks in the 30s were pushed up to over 40. University officials said they were bewildered by the allegations though they agreed marks were adjusted to take account of variations in exam papers.
The external examiner for the course was Professor Chris Collinson, dean of maths at Hull University, whose job was to keep an eye on marking and standards. "We're taking in a larger range of abilities, and assessment mechanisms have to reflect that," he said. "If you make a paper too difficult, the more mediocre students find it impossible to answer all the questions. You need to give everyone the chance to show their ability."
Few academics are under any illusions nowadays, if they ever were, that there is a national standard for degree classification. And few would maintain that a 2(i) at Thames Valley is equal to a 2(i) from Oxford. But one academic at Thames Valley, who does not want his name published, denies the standard of degrees at the university has been compromised.
"It's the quality of the student experience that's been affected," he says. He places much of the blame for this year's mess at the door of the management.
"The smooth running of the institution is very important," he says. "If you have administrative systems that don't work particularly efficiently and a situation where students don't have final confirmation of their results until six months after they should and don't have timetables until several weeks into the beginning of the academic year, all that is terribly frustrating for them."
The Quality Assurance Agency examined a huge pile of documents from Thames Valley as well as other material - audit and assessment reports, reports from external examiners and complaints files from the old Higher Education Quality Council. Its report, being presented to the university governors this week, clears the university of compromising standards as a result of the memo ordering student fails to be turned into passes, the reason being that the memo was never implemented. But the quality watchdog is likely to point to deep-seated problems with standards and quality in some subject areas. And it will reflect the concerns of lecturers - that administrative procedures had broken down, which meant staff could not operate properly.
It is expected to set in train a further inquiry into the university. Thames Valley has one or two departments which performed well in the research assessment exercise. Linguistics, for example, received the top grade 5. But other departments give cause for concern. And there are thought to be alarming reports from external examiners in several subject areas.
Now that the Quality Assurance Agency has its teeth into the university it is unlikely to let go in a hurry. Another report is due out shortly on Thames Valley's franchising arrangements in Poland. The Department for Education and Employment is aware of the problems. Politicians want to ensure educational institutions are properly accountable for what they do and that standards are acceptable.