External examiners are concerned that they are not being taken sufficiently seriously by universities, the Quality Assurance Agency has said.
In its final report following inquiries into allegations of "dumbing down" in higher education, the standards watchdog said that external examiners, whom it described as a "keystone" in the system for supporting academic standards, had reported doubts about their influence on the institutions for which they had worked.
"A number of cases have arisen where external examiners are reported to feel compromised by the demands placed upon them and/or where they feel that their reports have not been given sufficiently serious consideration by the host institution," the QAA says.
The report includes recommendations designed to strengthen the sector against claims that standards are slipping. It says national guidelines should be developed for external examiners, that universities should provide students with better information about the contact they can expect with teachers, and that English language tests for international students should be reviewed.
There was also concern about the transparency of selection procedures for external examiners.
"Institutional processes for the identification and appointment of external examiners appear to lack transparency to observers outside higher education (and some within it)," the QAA concludes.
Regarding international students, the inquiry found that difficulties sometimes arose when their language skills "are either insufficient to deal with the demands of their programme or ... have the potential to have a detrimental effect on the learning experience of all students".
The report recommends a review of English language tests and guidance for international students about the support they can expect.
Opinion on the level of significance attached to contact hours was divided among academics who spoke to the QAA, but the watchdog said universities should provide clear information about the amount and type of contact students can expect with staff.
The report described assessment as a "dynamic and challenging area". Variation in the way that universities' assessment regulations are applied by individual schools or departments has attracted criticism, the QAA says.
The inquiry also identified "widespread criticism" of the degree classification system and calls for a review of assessment practice "aimed at improving the robustness and consistency of assessment and classification practices within and between institutions".
Finally, the QAA's report says that more effective ways of informing the public about how quality and standards are assured in higher education are needed.