Richard Garner: A degree of honesty is needed

Share
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.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
At the time of the investigation Patrick Foster published a statement on Twitter, denouncing the “unnecessarily heavy-handed police investigation”  

Long-term bail allows lazy police and prosecutors to leave cases to gather dust

Oliver Wright
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment