MPs accuse universities of complacency

Vice-chancellors taken to task for falling standards as education watchdog queries increasing number of first-class degrees
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The Independent Online

University vice-chancellors are accused today of "defensive complacency" over standards in the UK's higher education institutions.

In a swingeing attack on the running of universities, a group of influential MPs says checks on degree standards are "out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced".

MPs on the Commons Select Committee that monitors higher education launched an inquiry following claims that lecturers had been placed under pressure to "go easy" on marking to ensure their universities gained high rankings in league tables.

In today's report, they express concern that the number of first-class degrees awarded has more than doubled in the past decade from 19,470 to 41,150. They are incensed that vice-chancellors interviewed by the committee dodged the question as to whether first-class honours degrees from different universities were of equal standing.

"We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue," said Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee.

The MPs want the Quality Assurance Agency, the sector's standards watchdog, to be given more teeth – and to no longer have to rely on higher education institutions for its finance. Instead, they argue, it should issue an annual report to Parliament on standards and look for consistency between institutions. In addition, they want legislation to be introduced which would allow universities to be stripped of their powers to award degrees if they fail to maintain standards.

"The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with two million students," says the report.

"Given the amount of money that the taxpayer puts into universities [£15bn a year] it is not acceptable ... that vice-chancellors cannot give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether students obtaining first-class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards."

It says of vice-chancellors: "At several points we encountered what could be characterised as defensive complacency. We found no appetite whatsoever to investigate important questions such as the reason for the steady increase in the proportion of first-class and upper second-class honours degrees over the past 15 years – or the variation in study time by students taking the same subjects at different universities."

Some attempted to combat worries over standards by saying that international students still wanted to study in the UK.

"We conclude that it is simplistic and unsatisfactory for higher education institutions to be seen to rely on the fact that international students continue to apply as evidence that standards are being maintained," says the report. "It is absurd and disreputable to justify academic standards with a marketing mechanism."

The MPs call for a government review of top-up fees – due to be started in the autumn – to examine alternatives to the present system – a move welcomed by students' leaders and the University and College Union,

They also want tougher action on weak teaching after receiving evidence from students that there "appeared to be no mechanism" in many universities for tackling poor teaching.

The report got short shrift from Lord Mandelson, whose department is in charge of running universities: "I don't recognise the committee's description of our higher education system, which is in fact world class and second only to the USA as a top destination for overseas students."

David Willetts, for the Tories, described the report as "a wake-up call for the sector as well as ministers". "It is a refreshingly frank assessment of where things stand," he added.

Vice-chancellors' representatives also criticised the report. Dr Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, which represents leading research institutions, said: "We are rather dismayed and surprised by this outburst when VCs have engaged in hours of discussion with MPs over these issues."

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