Leader: Degrees of variation

February 3, 2006

It will come as no surprise to academics (or graduates) that degree standards vary within as well as between universities. Institutions must take seriously the Quality Assurance Agency's examples of inconsistencies between similar departments (page 9), but there may be good reason for some of the variations. Indeed, one of the difficulties faced by the QAA and its predecessors is that, despite external examiners' efforts, the notionally common currency of the bachelor's degree has never existed in the way that it does at A level or GCSE.

There is a temptation, as a result, to overvalue assessment procedures rather than concentrating on outcomes. This week's audit of the University of London is a prime example, making valid criticisms of the federal university's practices even though there is no evidence of unsatisfactory standards. The London School of Economics and others may choose to award their own degrees, but it will not be because of any concerns about poor assessment methods.

The current audit system provides reassurance about institutional procedures, but lay readers would find the reports help little in making judgments about relative quality. Instead, prospective students must try to interpret the plethora of statistics on the TQI website and/or rely on a national satisfaction survey that is now threatened with sabotage. The survey is in its infancy but, with one set of students threatening to boycott the exercise and others talking of undermining it by inflating scores artificially, it faces a struggle to establish itself.

Parents and potential applicants must hope that it succeeds; without the benefit of guidance from the QAA in the form of subject reviews, there is a danger that they will lose their way in a morass of detail.

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