Thousands of hours spent marking student essays could be saved at the touch of a button if universities agree to create a national "bank" of computer-assessed exam questions.
The idea was unveiled this week at the Royal Geographical Society's annual conference where academics heard that assessed essays could be largely replaced by sophisticated multiple-choice questions.
A bank of 10,000 computer-marked questions has already been devised by four geography departments. They are considering pooling the questions for use by other universities.
Research fellow John Castleford of Leicester University's geography department said: "This is a radical idea but it does have proven benefits." It could work equally well in other academic disciplines, he added.
Academics are divided over the proposal. Supporters, who want to downgrade the gold standard of the assessed essay, face fierce opposition from others who dismiss the idea as "bunkum".
Sceptics at the RGS conference, held at Leicester University, feared the idea could become a slippery slope towards a national core curriculum. Concerns were also raised about academic freedom and the deskilling of undergraduate studies.
But Mr Castleford claimed that universities had to face the fact that the tradition of setting assessed essays was under severe strain because the marking was so time-consuming. This had been exacerbated by modularisation, he said. Experiments showed that a thousand hours of marking could be saved if a first-year cohort switched to the system.
The other benefit was that computer marking was objective.
Gareth Williams, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, agreed. "Achieving consistency when marking hundreds of student essays is almost impossible. Multiple-choice questions are widely used in the US so it is probably time we took a closer look at them," he said.
However, Alan Smithers of Liverpool University said the US had adopted the system because students there were more litigious. "There are no short cuts and we have to accept that assessment is as much an art as a science," he said. "Multiple-choice questions test recall but they cannot tap ideas in students' heads and risk narrowing everything."
Geoffrey Alderman, head of quality assurance at Middlesex University, was dubious. "Higher education is not about memory. We ought to be testing conceptual awareness and this cannot be done by multiple choice or any other kind of computer-assisted assessment. Anyone who says otherwise is talking bunk."
Mr Castleford claims it is possible to make multiple-choice questions as intellectually challenging as an essay. Done properly, they could test far more than factual recall. "Students have to be able to apply and synthesise knowledge," he said. "Time and effort has gone in to devising the bank of questions and universities can either take three or four years learning how to do it, or use our expertise."
Keith Chapman, professor of geography at Aberdeen University, has been experimenting with computer-assisted assessment for three years. "Multiple-choice need not be Mickey Mouse questions," he said, but demand for a national question bank might not be "sufficiently broad-based".
Michael Bradford, professor of geography at Manchester University, was optimistic but cautious. "Not all the questions will work in each curriculum and there is a danger that people might pull questions from the bank for time-saving without learning how to do them themselves," he said.