Richard Garner: A degree of honesty is needed

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The Independent Online

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.