An urgent investigation should be carried out into the system for monitoring degree standards in the wake of The Independent's revelations that lecturers were being forced to turn a blind eye to cheating, the Conservatives' universities spokesman said yesterday.
David Willetts was speaking as lecturers and former students voiced widespread support for the claims made by Professor Geoffrey Alderman, the former head of standards at the University of London.
Meanwhile, a whistleblower from one of the elite Russell Group of universities claimed yesterday that degrees were being awarded to overseas students who spoke almost no English, despite the fact they should have passed language proficiency tests. "Last week, I tried to speak to a student who could not understand a simple request: in the end, we had to resort to pen and paper," the academic told BBC news online. "Someone who needs to communicate using pictures is, to say the least, unlikely to have passed the language proficiency test by themselves."
He added that once overseas students had arrived it became "difficult" for them to be failed or sent home, renewing concerns about the credibility of the British degree system.
Professor Alderman sparked off the controversy by claiming in a lecture that academics were under pressure to secure more first-class honours degrees for their students to ensure a good league table ranking for their university. He also said they were encouraged to turn a blind eye to plagiarism – particularly by international students – because of the need to preserve their income from fees.
Yesterday, lecturers and former students flocked to The Independent's website to back up Professor Alderman's claims. A former student at Sunderland University, Mike Westlake, wrote: "I was horrified by the standard of work from some of the students and, when I challenged the lecturers, they said they weren't allowed to fail the poor quality work! This meant time extensions for ridiculous reasons, ignoring lack of reference and allowing poor spelling to go through."
A spokesman for Sunderland University said it took the issue of plagiarism seriously and had penalties in place for offenders.
Mr Willetts said: "The number of first and 2:1 degree passes awarded has increased. The universities say this is because standards have improved. There is a system of external checks in place and we have to be sure these are robust."
A spokesman for the Quality Assurance Agency, the higher education watchdog, said: "If we find any evidence that institutions are not addressing issues of plagiarism seriously... we would highlight this as a serious shortcoming that must be dealt with."
Reaction to the claims
* "In my own university, we have repeatedly been reminded by managers that we should give more higher grades and have to explain elaborately if we give more than a few fails." Debs
* "So many colleagues feel the need to 'cook the books'... so they can be seen to be achieving quality results." Deborah
* "I have taught and examined maths for 40 years and during that time the syllabus has been revised several times to meet falling expectations of what school leavers could do." Derek Nonhebel
* "The system of external examiners is not a protection because they come from a university and therefore have their own interest in grade inflation." Kester Aspden