Woodhead calls for inquiry into degree standards

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The Independent Online

Universities should hold an inquiry into degree standards - and courses should be more demanding, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, said yesterday.

Universities should hold an inquiry into degree standards - and courses should be more demanding, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, said yesterday.

His comments, which were instantly attacked by the universities standards' watchdog, come only days after he said that A-level exams were not hard enough and that there should be an inquiry into yearly improvements in exam results.

All degree courses, he said, should be judged partly on whether they led to a job. His remarks go much further than his recent attack on standards in vocational subjects such as media studies and golf course management, which he described as vacuous.

"I think, as with A-levels, that we have to look at the standards of every degree," he said yesterday. "As standards are rising in schools so standards ought to be rising in higher education. Exams exert a profound influence over what happens in seminars and lecture rooms."

Mr Woodhead is not the only expert to worry about grade inflation in universities. Research has shown that students have been achieving better degrees with each successive year. Large proportions of students now get Upper Second degrees. Thirty years ago that was not the case.

"There is a particular issue with so-called vocational degrees which attempt to achieve an academic identity and in some cases fail to lead to worthwhile employment," he said. "A good degree has two essential characteristics: it has integrated and demanding intellectual content and a practical element; and it leads to a job."

Mr Woodhead, who headsOfsted, the school standards watchdog, said the inquiry into degree standards should be carried out by the university watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), he said.

"If Ofsted had any responsibility in this area, I would be wanting to look at degrees from the point of view of standards and whether they promise what they offer in terms of employment.

"The important thing is that the investigation focuses very clearly and objectively on the standards of one degree compared with another both with regard to subject area and across institutions. Second, we need to look at whether standards have changed over time."

John Randall, QAA chief executive, said his agency was addressing the issue of degree standards. A consultation paper on qualifications has been circulated. "It deals precisely with what standards should be and how they are maintained," he said. "The Dearing report set a challenging agency for standards in higher education and we are implementing that. Perhaps Chris Woodhead would like to read some of the work we have done."

Tom Wilson, head of universities at the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "This is deplorable rubbish. It is another example of the chief inspector's knee-jerk populism for which he has no evidence.

"The idea that one criteria for a degree course should be whether you get a job a the end of it is pretty offensive to poets and philosophers. Some subjects should be studied for their own sake."

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