Easier access to higher education is leading to a dumbing down of courses and rising dropout rates, according to academics in a THES /ICM poll.
The nationwide survey shows lecturers grappling with the twin pressures of increased numbers of more diverse students and mounting red tape. The survey found:
• 76 per cent of academics questioned had been forced to adapt their teaching techniques in response to an increasingly diverse student population
• Well over two-thirds believed that students were less well prepared now for their higher education than in the past
• The academic community was split on favouring less well-qualified state-school students in the admissions process.
Almost 70 per cent of academics said today's students were less well prepared than their predecessors. Academics at post-1992 universities were more relaxed about this perceived shift than their counterparts at older universities.
Dumbing down as a result of easier entry was identified by 58 per cent, against 33 per cent who saw no evidence of this. Professors were less likely to see the potential for deteriorating performance than lecturers, and engineers were the most concerned by the trend.
Students were already "short-changed" by larger classes and worsening student-to-staff ratios, according to 71 per cent of those questioned. The view was most strongly held by medics and social scientists.
There was a roughly even split on the merits of favouring students with inferior entry qualifications from state schools over academically better-qualified students from the independent sector.
Some 39 per cent said they would approve if their own university admitted state-school students on lower grades at the expense of independent school students with higher grades, while 37 per cent disapproved.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said that universities were "keen to ensure that all those with the potential to succeed in higher education are able to do so". But she added: "They do not want to set people up to fail. We have argued... that the key to successful widening participation is in raising standards in schools. It is also vital that universities are adequately resourced to support students effectively - this is key to preventing student dropout."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said any decline in quality was "the consequence of the government massively expanding the system while at the same time slashing spending per student".
She added: "It's imperative that universities get enough funding so that they can provide students from non-traditional backgrounds with the support they need to enable them to cope with the challenges thrown up by higher education."
National Union of Students education vice-president Chris Weavers said universities were right to widen access beyond traditional A-level students but they were having a hard time adapting their support mechanisms to the needs of different groups who encountered problems as a result.
Larger classes and higher student-to-staff ratios undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the quality of education and the ability of lecturers to do their jobs, Mr Weavers added.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge denied that expansion resulted in a dilution of quality. Speaking at a Downing Street seminar yesterday Ms Hodge recalled the claim by author Kingsley Amis in 1960 - when only 6 per cent of young people went to university compared with more than 40 per cent today - that "more meant worse" higher education. "Those who say now that expansion will lead to worse higher education are similar doom-mongers," she said.
A striking three-quarters of those polled said they had had to adapt their teaching techniques in response to an increasingly diverse student population, a view held most strongly among senior staff. Ninety per cent of readers and 80 per cent of professors said they had adapted.
Red tape diverted academics from their primary functions. Overall, per cent spent more than half their time on administration, with almost two-thirds losing at least 30 per cent of their time.
Professors claimed the heaviest admin burden - 37 per cent spent more than half their working week struggling with bureaucracy. But academics still declared themselves prepared to encourage their students to consider a university career - 53 per cent overall said they would do so.
ICM Research conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of more than 500 academics at old and new universities across the UK in late March.