How much do national University standards matter?

The BBC reports:

Universities in England are failing to safeguard degree standards, according to a damning report from MPs. The current system for ensuring quality is “out of date and should be replaced”, the Commons universities select committee concluded. “… “We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue,” said [Lib Dem MP] Mr [Phil] Willis, chair of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee.

Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ is sanguine:

… what of the complaint that degrees from different institutions aren’t directly comparable? That a 2:1 in Geography from Sheffield University might not demonstrate exactly the same level of intelligence or attainment that a 2:1 in Geography from Clare College, Cambridge.

Well, of course not. And without imposing some fatuous national curriculum on our universities, or a whole layer of stifling bureaucracy, how could it be otherwise.

But it doesn’t matter. Students and employers can cope with this. Not perfectly, but then what it? In this case the cure would be far worse than the disease.

It’s an issue that gets to the heart of the classic liberal dilemma: how do we guarantee freedom for local institutions while ensuring consistency of national standards?

Liberals of course champion the principle that universities should remain autonomous institutions, academically free to devise and set their curricula and examinations. But what of the prospective student considering entering university and incurring a lifetime’s debt, and wanting to know, really know, which university is going to train their mind the best? And what of the prospective employer with two candidates for one job, and wanting to know, really know, which of their degree courses really tested them the most? Surely students and employers have a right to have some external, independent way of determining which degree from which university is objectively best?

The report sets out the Committee’s views plainly:

We consider that so long as there is a classification system it is essential that it should categorise all degrees against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions in England. … We conclude that a key task of a reformed QAA, in consultation with higher education institutions and government, should be to define the characteristics of each class of honours degree and to ensure that the standards which each university draws up and applies are derived from these classification standards.

The question is: is this practical? Or is University UK’s fear justified:

Maintaining standards is absolutely vital but we reject the suggestion that the way to improve the system that protects standards is to create some super-quango or Ofsted-style Quality and Standards Agency. This seems to us a sledgehammer to crack a nut. For inspectors to judge content and level of achievement could logically lead to national exams based on a national curriculum, just as we have in schools. It has been recognised – internationally and by successive UK Governments – that autonomy is key to a successful and responsive higher education system.

“The raft of centralising recommendations appear to us ill thought-through, disproportionate to the scale of any problem identified, and made without supporting evidence. They also give no acknowledgement of the costs of some of the proposals. This is unhelpful at a time of financial constraints and when our priorities must be on front line teaching and maintaining the quality of the student experience.


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  • I agree with the complaint that it’s basically fatuous to draw comparisons, but at the same time comparing a 2.1 from a big civic – where the student has no 1-1 tutorials, no DoS running round after them, and has to work with good, but still inferior to Oxbridge, facilities – to one from Clare, Cambridge and asserting that it automatically means less attainment and intelligence is equally fatuous, whether the comparison is irrelevant or not. It may be that the student in the civic displays more attainment – or it may not. Automatically saying that a 2.1 from Cambridge is superior (in pure academic terms) to one from a big redbrick is kind of like saying that the 11+ was always right in the old days. No doubt there is a far greater concentration of talent at Oxbridge than anywhere else. But equally, the 18+ entry system for HE (strictly speaking 17+) doesn’t mean there aren’t students of ability right throughout the sector; merely that the proportions are different.

    I’ve studied and taught in both Oxbridge and the civics. The criteria I use for marking are the same. External examining does function and though it could function better, they do provide a check. I’ve seen marks given in civics increased by Oxbridge externals. I’ve seen markers in civics reluctant to award stratospheric marks to truly outstanding work due to the fear it might be seen as grade inflation (and irony of ironies, in two cases these civic lecturers were Oxbridge graduates). And so on. Equally, it doesn’t give full play to differences between honours courses. Who knows if a 2.1 in the History FHS at Oxford is intellectually a tougher ‘get’ than a 2.1 in the Theology FHS? Or vice versa?

    The real elephants in the room are taught master’s courses – where most academics would, I think, accept that there are some dubious practices that take place, largely due to universities recruiting large numbers of overseas students with (in many cases) uncertain educational qualifications and English language skills; simply due to money. Given the current financial plight the sector finds itself in, this is hardly likely to change and this does need tackling.

    Let’s be frank, there’s a degree of snobbery in play right through this discussion (not referring to you here Costigan, I know that’s not your perspective at all). The number of Oxbridge undergraduates I’ve heard try to console themselves with the line that a 2:2 from Oxford is ‘as good as a first from a redbrick’ is frankly shocking. Because simply put, no, it isn’t. And contingent on knowledge of institutions and courses, I don’t think many employers would think so, either.

    Ultimately Costigan is right though; employers are able to make subjective judgements, right or wrong. Worryingly, the report is very illiberal and strengthening the QAA isn’t the answer. The universities are already stifled by it enough, not to mention the RAE which has spawned thousands of unread, reheated ‘scholarly’ articles to tick bureaucratic boxes. One good point though was in regard to the Higher Education Academy – what does this really do?

  • Disclaimer: I am an LSE academic, and I have taught and examined elsewhere, including acting as an external.

    This report is silly. There are now >100 universities (good). Some require 3As or more to get in, and some require a couple of Es. If standards are the same in the final exams, then there is a danger that almost all the students at the 3As univ will get firsts, and almost all at the 3Es univ will get thirds. That is not useful in terms of motivating students to do their best at any institution.

    But I admit that I am concerned when I see pretty good students, who can obviously hold down graduate jobs, just missing a 2:1 and so ruling them out of the graduate job market. It is pretty clear to me that had they would have got 2:1s at other univs, and I wonder whether they would have done better to go to a less prestigious university. I do not think, for example, that many employers realise that Durham have everyone taking history a first or 2:1 this year, whereas other univs (including some rated similarly to Durham, or above them by student entry grades) did not give all their students a 2:1. So there are issues here to address, but I think that the best way forward would be more information (eg rankings as well as an overall grade).

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 9:01pm

    “This report is silly. There are now >100 universities (good). Some require 3As or more to get in, and some require a couple of Es.”

    What’s silly (to put it mildly) is that there are universities that only require “a couple of Es” – and that’s in the debased currency of today’s A levels. God help us!

  • Martin Land 3rd Aug '09 - 9:36pm

    Herbert Brown: But today’s A levels are not debased. When I went to University 35 years ago, I needed two A’s and a B for my choices at the time in Politics and Economics (Durham, York and Hull all asked for the same); but at the same time a friend who wanted to do Engineering was offered D’s and E’s (finally going to Hull with an offer of two E’s – though he got two B’s and a C) at a similar range of universities. Even then, when only 8% were going to University it was supply and demand that controlled the grades demanded.

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 9:50pm


    How does what you’ve said imply anything about the standards of A levels now as opposed to 35 years ago?

    And of course in those days universities often made offers on the basis of minimal grades, if they were satisfied of the applicant’s aptitude on other grounds. That’s a world away from Tim’s argument that there are “3Es universities”, the bulk of whose intake really does get only 3 Es, and that we therefore can’t apply uniform standards because almost everyone at those universities would get thirds, and therefore wouldn’t be “motivated”.

    The root cause of this problem is the crazy idea that half the population has some kind of a “right” to a university education, regardless of academic aptitude.

  • Richard Grayson 3rd Aug '09 - 11:15pm

    For what it is worth, my own experience leads me to think that standards are broadly comparable at very different universities, and have been for quite some time.

    I should state my credentials. I have taught at five different universities: Oxford (undergrad Politics/History tutorials for 14 different colleges of the university over 1993-7), UEA (undergrad History seminars, 1995), Buckingham (undergrad Politics lectures and seminars 1994), two different regions of the Open University (undergrad and postgrad History seminars, 1996-8), and more recently the full range of teaching on undergrad and postgrad Politics degrees at Goldsmiths (since 2004). I have recently externally examined postgrad dissertations at UEA and UEL, and as a Head of Department at Goldsmiths since 2006, have had extensive dealings with several external examiners from several different institutions. So this covers in one way or another, Oxbridge, redbrick and concrete, a former poly, plus two institutions that are quite unique: the Open Univ and the country’s only private university.

    My own sense in the mid-1990s was that standards were comparable across the different institutions in which I was teaching concurrently, and that has not changed on my return to academic life since stopping working for the party in 2004. At Goldsmiths, we certainly award fewer Firsts than I saw at Oxford, and even fewer than they do now. But the most capable students I have taught at Goldsmiths have been the most capable I have taught anywhere and I am certain they would have been outstanding at Oxford. So I have great faith that a First is as hard to get as it was fifteen years ago, and that it is no easier to get one at say, Goldsmiths compared to Oxford.

    As regards more students getting Upper Seconds, I think this is very largely due to them working harder at university then when I started as a student in 1987. Then, I think few people had any sense that it was important to get a 2i rather than a 2ii, because for many jobs it just wasn’t. Now, students are so focused on getting a 2i, that they find out just what they have to do get one, and then do it.

  • I had friends at Newcastle who did 1 essay a year and duly picked up their 2:1 at the end of their three years. Having studied in the States, where they have a policy of continuous assessment, I think many British universities are letting their students down. If the taxpayer is helping to fund these institutions, we have a right to demand better too.

  • Steve,

    I’d be interested to know what course at Newcastle that was. So there were no exams at all? No dissertation or project work, even as an option? At Oxford students in humanities subjects write seven or eight essays per paper per term, a weekly essay to be reviewed in tutorial. But none of this work is ‘assessed’, it makes no contribution to the final mark and thus tutorial essays range widely between the really excellent and the very poor. Essays in civics tend to be coursework; they tend to make a contribution to the final module mark and to echo Richard’s point, they thus tend to be more focused at producing the goods for the sake of getting the 2.1. So fewer essays are done in civics, but when they are they are of much greater importance to the outcome of the student’s degree.

    I’d also echo Richard’s point about the capability of students. For reference I taught at one college in Oxford and one in Cambridge, and was a temporary lecturer at the University of Birmingham (in politics). The best students I taught at Birmingham were driven and hugely impressive; their firsts were worth no less than those of their contemporaries in Oxbridge.

  • Mike- I was thinking of someone I know who was at Newcastle to study History. She must have left about 4 years ago now. You are also right to spell out the difference between assessed work and non-assessed work. We should expect a year-long effort for your final grade. Otherwise the quality of undergrad education suffers.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '09 - 2:16pm

    One problem is there are several dimensions to degree “quality”:

    Relevance – is the material taught relevant and up to date?

    Level – is the material intellectually challenging or relatively easy?

    Teaching style – is a lot of effort put into how the material is taught, or is it done in a slapdash manner?

    The quality assurance mechanisms in universities tend to concentrate on the last of these, but what people think of as “good” in a university tends not to.

    As with schools but even more so, the quality of a university in terms of end product depends to a very large extent on its intake, and there is a feedback on this. So a university which takes in very highly qualified students can get away with a great deal of sloppiness in teaching because the students are often bright enough to be able to cope with it and in effect teach themselves with just vague guidance from the staff – which is what universities were originally about. Because they can attract highly qualified students they can put on intellectually challenging assessments, they get the good reputation and this attracts more highly qualified students. Such a university, however, would not be good for a less qualified student who requires more hand-holding in tuition and a less intellectually demanding curriculum and assessment.

    It should also be recalled that universities particularly at the more prestigious end of the scale, think of themselves more as research institutions than teaching institutions. The teaching is done on the side to earn bit of money to get on with what academics regard as the real work – publishing research papers. University funding is heavily skewed to promote this – fixed amounts for students, extra money for good research, so why bother putting any effort into teaching? Putting all your effort into research means you get more money, a better international reputation, so rise up the league tables, so attract the better qualified students who are bright enough to work their way around the fact you aren’t putting much effort into teaching them anyway.

    The fact that universities are research institutions should mean teaching is done by world experts in the subject, and should be exploited by allowing freedom in curriculum design so the experts can feed in what they feel is best from their own background. A uniform national university curriculum imposed from on top would be a disaster, it would end the ability to tailor teaching and assessment to intake, and the ability to experiment in teaching using one’s own research background as inspiration and to take the teaching to what one feel as from that is most relevant.

    Having said this, I feel the skew in funding has gone too far and creates perverse incentives which damage teaching quality. The general public seem to be completely unaware of this issue – as a university lecturer I find throughout summer almost everyone I speak to says things like “have you finished work yet?” and “when do you go back again?” under the assumption that I’m on holiday throughout the time when there’s no undergraduate teaching. The reality is that most academics snatch a week or two’s holiday over summer but are otherwise engaged in the research – lack of research output means you will never get promoted and these days you will be first in line for redundancy when they’re looking for people to sack.

  • “As regards more students getting Upper Seconds, I think this is very largely due to them working harder at university then when I started as a student in 1987.”

    Maybe but certainly not entirely. My University changed the way it totalled up people’s marks so that (in effect) more people got 2:1s than before. This was because by comparision a student at Sheffield Hallam with exactly the same marks could have got a 2:1 rather than the 2:2 they would award.

    If that practice was common across a number of Universities it would produce a measureable uplift even though no higher marks were being scored.

  • Neil Gilbride 5th Aug '09 - 8:26pm

    I have just left the university system, and having talked to fellow graduates, I think this is a really big issue and i am glad it has finally come out into the mainstream.

    The number of 2:1s, 1sts etc, I believe, is actually quite irrelevant. If this number was dropping, then people would be complaining that standards are too high. What I think is the most important question is: how are these grades being achieved at different universities, and how does this compare.

    I agree with Mr Huntbach above that what is taught should be relevant, up to date and at the correct level and will therefore not repeat his comments. However, I do feel that what needs to built upon is not only how students knowledge is tested to be of a particular grade, but also how their academic skills are critiqued.

    I will give a couple of examples where I feel their is major need for reform:

    I am aware of a couple of institution’s that will only take a selection of the students best grades, and discount their worst performance into account when calculating. So, for example, out of 5 units, they will only take their top 3 grades. I have been lead to believe that this practise is common. This practise should either become universal, or scrapped entirely. It is unfair on students who have a 2:1 based on their complete performance to be compared to a student with a 2:1 who has only had their best grades taken into consideration. I am not saying one is better then the other, but no direct comparison could possibly be made.

    Then there is an issue of how much do you weight the 3 independent years? Some universities give no credit to the first year, whilst others weight 10%. 10% sounds a small amount, but its the difference between a 2:1 and a 1st, indeed a 2:2 and a 2:1.

    The amount of examinations to coursework, and the weighting of each, is one which fluctuates heavily. Whilst some of my fellow graduates where examined for the entirity of their 3rd year, others have not sat one single exam. It makes cross-comparison difficult as they demand such completely different skills.

    Even within the same university, standard’s and expectations of students can vary dramatically. It appears that grades are still quite a subjective opinion, despite good generalised expectations of the skills required for a particular grade. I personally have experienced how academics can vary dramatically in terms of awarding grades – one peice of work was awarded 18/20, whilst another marked this 12/20 – a high 1st and a mid 2:2. If the criteria for the work was applicable, sound and objective, then such a discrepancy would not be possible.

    As a result of these, and other factors, I do believe that there is a wide discrepancy in the standards of different universities and therefore I do not believe that a First at one university, is the same as a First at another. Therefore, it makes counting the number of 2:1s or 1st’s awarded a pointless exercise. Let hypothesis that if the content studied was exactly the same between two courses at different universities, and a student at each university had the same grasp of the content, because of the differences between how the student would be assessed, it would be entirely possible for the students to end up with different grades.

    How do we settle the issue of varying quality? A national curriculum is not the answer. This would place a stranglehold on academics and stop precious debate occuring across our universities. Furthermore, this would restrict student choice.

    What needs to be achieved is balance – a balance between university autonomy and a specific national standard of assessment. However, this requires deeper questions to be asked of the specific details of assessment e.g. what exactly is a particular grade, and furthermore, how would this transcend across different disciplines. There need to be a debate as to what is academically rigorous, what is not, and set this across the board whilst remaining respectful to the demand and requirements of different disciplines.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Aug '09 - 10:15am


    The amount of examinations to coursework, and the weighting of each, is one which fluctuates heavily.

    and similar comments.

    As a university lecturer, I greatly value the freedom to be able to choose on what I teach and how I assess. I use my own judgment based on what I think works best for the material I teach to decide on such things as the balance between examinations and marked courseworks. It is the case that some material is best assessed with exams, other by dissertations and other forms of coursework. Why do you suppose some bureaucrat would know better than me? And if we did have bureaucrats imposing uniformity, that would end the diversity of choice and ability to experiment which I believe is very valuable in the university system.


    The charter schools in America have shown that even the poorest and most deprived children can do very well in school if they are given encouragement and challenges rather than spoon-fed from the National Curriculum by teachers who are in a Whitehall-imposed straitjacket.

    Yes, this is the current magic solution, but in putting it forward we seem to forget the National Curriculum was the magic solution of the 1980s. In those days, the line was that all the problems were due to trendy left-wing teachers who didn’t value traditional education and were doing their own thing instead of teaching the basics. It was Sir Keith Joseph of the Conservative Party who took the lead in suggesting that an enforced National Curriculum, which would lay down traditional tried-and-tested methods of teaching and insist that the basic subjects were given priority, would solve the problem of poor literacy and numeracy of school leavers.

    Constant re-organisation in which what is put forward as so obviously the solution one year is the exact opposite of what was put forward as so obviously the solution a few years previously suggests the real problems are not being tackled. The real problem of poor performance seems to be due to the growing social and economic inequality in our society. The damage is done by the time the kids arrive at school, it’s not down to what the schools do once they’re there. The smart set don’t care about this because they benefit from it. They don’t want to pay the taxes it would cost to do more at the bottom end to give kids a better education. They’re happy with a situation in which their kids sail to the top due to lack of competition from the bottom. If this country falls to pieces because of its poor education system, who cares – they can bring in cheap foreign labour or outsource. This country is now run for the benefit of a small smart set of very rich people who have no loyalty whatsoever to it and its people. It stinks and we should be shouting out about it. Instead this party has a growing right-wing which spends its time pushing out the propaganda this smart set has developed to justify their privileges.

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