Vice chancellors may move towards uniform degree standards when they meet in Belfast next week. The annual residential meeting of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals will receive an interim report from the Higher Education Quality Council's Graduate Standards Programme, set up last year under the chairmanship of Bob Boucher, vice chancellor of UMIST.
They were asked to investigate the question of defining entry standards for undergraduate degrees and consider mechanisms to assure their achievement. The report calls for
* the development of a concept of "graduateness," embodying standards required at degree level. This could include generic aptitudes, competences or skills plus subject-related aptitudes.
* A feasibility study to find ways of grouping degree programmes into clusters reflecting their purposes
* A review of award nomenclature clarifying "current ambiguities" such as "pass" and "unclassified" degrees.
Groups of vice chancellors will discuss how to address the issues of nomenclature, "graduate-ness", external examining and thresholds for diploma and degree programmes. The threshold issue is expected to be the most complex and potentially contentious.
The report found that "few academic staff believe that genuine and precise comparability exists even across degrees in a particular subject, still less across all degrees in all institutions; nor would it be regarded as desirable even if it could be achieved, since there is a general view that it would hinder innovation and encourage uniformity".
It adds that the concept of threshold standards has little bearing on current academic practice and underlying values, and work done to develop more explicit and externally accessible standards tends to be concentrated in activities such as credit accumulation and transfer or subjects only recently admitted to higher education.
But consultation also found there was scope for developing comparability in subjects where there is consensus on the contents, skills, purposes and theory and that this might also be achieved across clusters or cognate areas as well as those defined by subject.