Richard Garner: A degree of honesty is needed

Related Topics

It may be a case of stating the obvious to say that a first-class degree from Oxford and Cambridge is always going to count for more than one from a "bog-standard" university – to plagiarise Alastair Campbell's famous phrase. Yet earlier this year, a Commons select committee, spurred on by tales of universities putting pressure on their academics to mark students more leniently to secure high league table rankings, made the case for consistent national standards across the sector.

Yesterday's report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, one of the most revered higher education think tanks, argues that not only is this "not feasible" but it is also not "desirable". The institute is certainly right to say it is not feasible. Put your hand on your heart and admit that you can never envisage a situation where an employer faced with rival applications from Oxbridge and a university at the foot of the league tables – both with first-class degree passes – would not give more weight to the Oxbridge candidate.

As the report argues: "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 outcome of students from those universities were no higher than those of students from other universities who have far lower prior attainment, resources devoted to them, and so on."

Quite right. So we can dispose of any suggestion that it would be feasible to introduce a common degree standard. But would it be desirable?

There has been a lot of heated debate over the past few months over whether Britain will be able to retain its world-class universities in the wake of the £1.1 billion spending cuts imposed on them in this year's Budget. One way to ensure this in the 21st century is raising funds from alternative sources to the taxpayer – and one of these areas has to be through the recruitment of international students. If they perceive our top-performing universities – Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London – are not retaining their rankings in world league tables, they will be less likely to come here and the universities will be in danger of losing world-class status. Remember, we are facing increased competition from a massive growth in the higher education sector in countries like India and China.

That having been said, there are some points raised by the Commons inquiry into standards that the report does have to address. With the introduction of top-up fees, students have a higher expectation of their degree courses than they had previously and this does not mean making it easier for them to obtain a first-class degree. They deserve to have an assurance that their degree course conforms to robust standards and that is where the HEPI report's recommendation that there should be minimum standards for all courses at universities across the country comes in.

This will be easier to say than achieve. Universities are proud of their autonomy and will oppose attempts to impose a minimum curriculum on them. That said, it should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of academics to devise an external system of assessment which can rate courses in different subject areas according to whether they meet a minimum criteria. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

The reform of the degree classification system is not a good pointer to success in this field. Everyone agrees that the current classification system – devised when only a tiny proportion of the number who attend higher education now graduated from our universities – is not fit for purpose. Yet universities are moving at a snail's pace to reform it. This should be the area all those involved in providing higher education should be concentrating on – not on wringing hands over whether it is possible to have common degree standards between highly selective universities and the rest.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot