Students could find it harder to gain a degree under proposals agreed by vice-chancellors at their annual conference yesterday.
A pass or even a third-class degree under the current system might no longer qualify them as graduates if new thresholds designed to tighten up standards are introduced.
But the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), meeting in Belfast, rejected the idea that a curriculum could be laid down within individual subjects or groups of subjects. The 104 members of the committee, representing all the universities in the United Kingdom, said recent suggestions that course content could be laid down would restrict the diversity of degrees on offer.
They were responding to an interim report by the Higher Education Quality Council, the contents of which were revealed in the Independent last week, suggesting that universities must clarify the skills and knowledge which each graduate should have.
Levels of degree pass have risen in recent years, with the average student now achieving a 2:1. In the past, the average was a 2:2, and the shift has led to concern that standards might be slipping. Universities say their students are simply working harder.
Professor Gareth Roberts, the Vice-Chancellor of Sheff-ield University and chairman of the CVCP, said that students who failed to reach the required level for a first, a 2:1 or a 2:2 could still emerge with a certificate recognising their achievements, but might no longer be considered to be graduates. Employers would welcome a more comprehensive record of the skills and course content they had covered, he added.
The CVCP has promised to send a report on degree quality to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, by the end of December. It will also look at ways of strengthening the system of external examiners, which is meant to ensure that degrees of the same class are of equal standard at different universities.
Professor Roberts said recent concern over degree standards was not new. A similar debate had taken place in the 1960s after the Robbins Report led to a big expansion of the university system.
But he added that there were possible changes that might be made. A move towards the American system, which has only pass, fail and distinction grades in most cases, could help employers.
News Analysis, page 19