A first-class degree from Oxford or Cambridge will always count for more than those from most other universities, according to an influential higher education think-tank report out today.
The Higher Education Policy Institute's report warns that it is "neither feasible nor desirable" to have comparable degree standards across all UK universities. However, it concludes there is a case for introducing a common minimum standard for degrees across the country.
The report follows an investigation by the Commons select committee covering universities which concluded that the Quality Assurance Agency, the degree standards watchdog, should be responsible for maintaining consistent national standards.
MPs launched their inquiry following claims that some universities were putting pressure on academics to award more firsts so their institutions showed up well in league tables.
Roger Brown, the report's author, says it would have been more practical to argue for common degree standards when only a handful of the population went to university, and those that did were "broadly equivalent in terms of background and ability".
In addition, increased competitive pressures on universities – because of league tables and the introduction of variable top-up fees – are "almost certain to lead to greater variations in standards", he says.
"Today, the environment is radically different," he says. "Nearly half of the young population now participate in higher education and the range of ability of those students is much wider. It makes little sense to seek comparability of outcomes and it would actually be wrong to do so."
The report concludes: "Given the extraordinarily high previous educational attainment of students attending, say, Oxford or Cambridge, the substantially greater resources devoted to them, the greater intensity of study that they undergo, and other factors, it would in fact be a surprise if the outcomes of students from those universities were no higher than those of students from other universities."
Professor Steve Smith, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said: "The higher education sector in the UK is large and diverse and it's good that there is a variety in courses and not uniformity."