Last year, the Government asked the Higher Education Quality Council to look at degree standards. An interim report based on a series of academic studies is due to reach the council at the beginning of July. Meanwhile, the debate continues. Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University says: "To argue that all degrees are the same standard is probably empty rhetoric." Before the number of universities more than doubled, he says, there was already a hierarchy with Oxford and Cambridge at the top. But it was a comparatively small system and, through external examiners, universities were able to keep a reasonably close eye on each other and stay in step.
"Now it is quite hard to maintain the position that a degree is a degree. People who get As and Bs at A-level tend to go on certain courses at certain universities. Other universities are recruiting people without any A-levels."
Unless you accept the argument that those universities which take the least able students are adding a great deal more value to their graduates than those that take the most able, it is difficult to accept that all university degrees are equal.
It is, however, equally hard to prove that they are not. The Higher Education Quality Council accepts it faces a difficult task. With different exams in different universities, and without a national curriculum for higher education subjects, the assessment of degree standards is bound to retain a considerable element of subjectivity.
Professor Graeme Davies, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, last week tried to reassure MPs about standards in an interview with the House magazine. His council has been assessing the quality of teaching and learning in universities for two years.
He argues: "Concerns have been expressed about the effects of the substantial efficiency gains made by higher education in recent years (on average 5 per cent for each of the past five years). Evidence from the funding council's assessments indicates that with only seven exceptions, acceptable quality has none the less been maintained."
That is not, of course, the same as saying that degree standards are the same at every university. Comparing degree standards is not part of the funding council's brief. Prospective students, Professor Smithers suggests, should look at individual courses as much as whole institutions. He points to Bradford University, which set up a degree in French and business studies that was very differenrt from the literature-based courses at many older universities. It soon attracted the high-flyers. By contrast, a traditional subject such as English at Bradford has a comparatively low status.
Only in long-established subjects such as medicine and law is the university hierarchy comparatively rigid. In fields such as computing and personnel management, the newer universities may well have the best chance of taking the lead.