The Government wants to make it easier for "whistleblowers" to raise complaints about standards in universities.
The move follows claims by Geoffrey Alderman, of the University of Buckingham, first revealed in The Independent, that senior university officials were putting pressure on lecturers to award more firsts and 2:1 degree passes to improve their showing in league tables. Professor Alderman also warned that universities were awarding degree passes to international students with little understanding of English – because they could not afford to lose the income derived from overseas students.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said yesterday that he wanted the Quality Assurance Agency, which monitors higher education standards, to lower its threshold to investigate complaints.
"This is the best way to show that the higher education system not only has its house in order but can show the house is in order," he said at the annual conference in Cambridge of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors. He added that he wanted a system "which can respond more quickly and more flexibly when allegations are made – and is clearly less bureaucratic".
Until now, the QAA has demanded documented evidence to back up an allegation before an investigation can be launched.
Mr Denham said the allegations that were made in the summer, which included a claim by the QAA itself warning of a lack of consistency between universities in awarding degree passes, had damaged the standing of higher education in the UK abroad. He said he did not think that investigations "would show that we have a massive problem" but what had happened in the summer "creates an impression of things breaking out everywhere and an inability to respond quickly". It pointed to "a weakness in the system".
Rick Trainor, the president of Universities UK and the vice-chancellor of Kings College London, said he wanted closer liaison with the QAA to monitor standards. He said: "University leaders must do everything we can further to improve both the reality and the perception of quality in higher education."
The Universities Secretary also defended the Government's attempts to widen participation in higher education. He said: "It has been suggested that universities, and by extension, education, is not an engine for social justice. I profoundly disagree. Education is the most powerful tool we have in achieving social justice."
He added: "It does mean universities recognising their full responsibilities in helping to seek out and develop the best of talents, wherever they are in our society."