Student leaders have accused universities of reneging on commitments to be more accountable for the quality of their courses and lecturers because they fear an explosion of litigation.
The National Union of Students said this week that universities had betrayed one of the most fundamental legacies of the 1997 Dearing report into higher education - the recognition that fee-paying students had enforceable rights and were entitled to a clear contract with their universities.
NUS vice-president Chris Weavers said universities were "burying" or obscuring course specifications - the explicit information on content and intended learning outcomes.
His criticism came after a series of meetings on programme specifications (PS) between academics, students and quality chiefs, which revealed that some institutions had "serious concerns" about using them to inform students.
Dearing recommended that institutions produce specifications for every course, spelling out exactly what students could expect to be taught and what skills they would acquire on completion. His report says: "We stress the importance of clear and explicit information for students so that they can make informed choices about their studies."
The specifications were seen as a contract-style checklist against which students could hold institutions to account.
But a Quality Assurance Agency report on the round-table meetings says:
"There remains a strongly held view that programme specifications are most useful if prepared as an academic tool... as opposed to the Dearing recommendation that (they) were primarily concerned with providing information for students."
It also states: "There were serious concerns about moving back to the Dearing concept of PSI concern was expressed about possible contractual implications if the PS were used as a document for students' information."
Mr Weavers said universities had a tendency to bury the specifications, fail to publish them, or write them in language students would not understand. Universities were reluctant to provide too much information, he added, for fear that students would take, and win, legal action against them if they failed to deliver.
Peter Williams, QAA chief executive, said the availability of specifications would be examined during audits. "I am in no doubt that programme specifications are intended for publication. The concept was created for that purpose and we expect to see them made available to the public," he said.
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