The number of firsts awarded continues to rise but more than half of academics in our poll think that students are receiving undeserved degrees, reports Phil Baty
Julie Finch thinks her first-class honours degree is not worth the paper it is written on.
She said standards were so poor on her science course at a former polytechnic in the Midlands that her first was devalued and even highly performing students graduated with little or no substantial knowledge of the field.
Among a catalogue of serious allegations that Julie - who asked us not to use her real name - raised with her vice-chancellor was the claim that tutors made it too easy for students to pass final exams.
"I got 98 per cent for a biochemistry exam, when I'm sure not even Watson and Crick would have got those sorts of marks in their degrees," she said.
Julie also has concerns about how the final classification was calculated.
She missed one exam for personal reasons, so was given the capped maximum mark of 40 per cent. She walked out of another exam because she claims the paper was full of mistakes - yet her average grade was still 71.9 per cent, enough for a first.
Julie's case may be extreme, but it chimes with the findings of the second part of an exclusive survey by The Times Higher in which more than half the academics polled thought students were graduating with a better class of degree than their work warranted.
The internet survey of almost 400 self-selecting academics found that 55 per cent - 205 academics out of 376 - agreed with the statement: "Students at my institution obtain honours degrees that their academic performance does not warrant." Some 29 per cent in total disagreed with the statement.
Some 21 per cent emphasised their concern by reporting that they "strongly agreed" with the statement.
The poll also found that 50 per cent of respondents (188) agreed that "the rigour of assessment in my department has been reduced in order to improve student success rates". More than one in five, 21 per cent, "strongly agreed", compared with 13 per cent who "strongly disagreed".
Overall, 65 per cent disagreed with the statement: "Academic standards are as high as they used to be", with 22 per cent agreeing.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that almost 10,000 more students graduated with first-class degrees in 2002-03, a total of 25,795, compared with 1999-96, when 16,0 were given.
The proportion of firsts increased from 7.1 per cent to 10.3 per cent over the period, while the proportion of upper seconds increased from 42.6 per cent to 45.3 per cent.
A paper by Mantz Yorke, professor of education at Liverpool John Moores University, for the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group, did not conclude that the rising proportions of higher degrees proved that standards are blighted by an unjustified "grade inflation".
But Professor Yorke said that a general increase in the use of coursework, where students tend to find it easier to achieve higher marks, instead of traditional summative exams, could have had an impact on driving up marks.
There has also been a move towards the "modularisation" of courses, with degrees reduced to smaller components assessed at regular intervals.
Professor Yorke said there was a greater understanding of how universities calculated final classifications. He said students were more aware of how much failure was acceptable, how much weighting was given for different aspects of the course and how much poor work they could exclude from the final calculation, so they could better focus their efforts. "The big question is whether, by focusing on the minimum they need to achieve the necessary grades, are they missing out on the broader reading and understanding of the subject?" Professor Yorke said.
Harvey Woolf, head of academic standards at Wolverhampton University, said that universities also had to spell out much more clearly what it was they wanted students to demonstrate.
"Perhaps what has occurred over the past decade or so is that the rules and regulations governing the award of degrees have become more explicit and more public and, thus, what previously was decided in the privacy of the examination board is now open to more public scrutiny."
There is also concern that rivalries between universities in the war to attract the brightest students is putting pressure on markers to be more generous.
The proportion of top degrees awarded by each university is one of the measures used to compile institutional league tables. All other things being equal, a university could drop down the league if it were awarding fewer firsts than competitor institutions.
In addition, a high success rate, as expressed by a healthy proportion of firsts and upper seconds awarded, is good for recruitment, with potential students more likely to apply to an institution where, at least on paper, they are more likely to get a good degree.
Ron Cooke, then vice-chancellor of York University, sparked controversy in 2001 when he sent a memo to all external examiners, pointing out the proportion of firsts awarded in economics had dropped compared with rivals.
He asked whether "the distribution of results accurately reflects the achievements of students".
Earlier, Essex University was criticised by the Quality Assurance Agency, which reported a "general relaxation" of the minimum threshold between firsts and upper seconds. The QAA warned that "parameters for the award of first-class honours might err on the side of generosity".
Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, said this week that the uncertainty over degree standards showed why "fundamental reform" of the classification system - as recommended by the Burgess report last month - was essential. "There are no precise or commonly accepted definitions of first or upper second, and there are 130-plus autonomous institutions using the system in their own way. So the shift (in the proportion of top awards) might just as well represent a warranted raising of the standards than an unwarranted lowering of them."
Warwick doubles firsts
One in five of Warwick University's graduates was awarded first-class honours last year - double the national average - after one of the most rapid increases in the proportion of top awards given at any of the sector's institutions.
The proportion of firsts awarded at Warwick doubled from 10.6 per cent in 1998 to 20.3 per cent in 2003, compared with 10 per cent nationally. The average among Warwick's rivals in the elite Russell Group of research-led universities is 15.5 per cent.
"It is difficult to believe there has been such a great leap forward in academic achievement," said Lord Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat peer who has raised concerns about grade inflation.
Lord Oakeshott became worried after noticing that the lower second-class degree was "in rather short supply" during his children's degree ceremonies.
"There must be something causing the universities to ease off the students," he said.
But Warwick is adamant its standards have not slipped.
"Lord Oakeshott might be equally surprised to learn that the University of Warwick has leapt from being just farmland in 1964-65 to become one of the UK's top ten research universities in just 40 years - racing past many older establishments," a spokesman said.
"The core of any university is its staff and students and it's thus unsurprising that the overall rapid success and growth of Warwick is equally reflected in the achievement of our staff and students. We have a lot to celebrate in our 40th anniversary year in 2005."
The spokesman was "not aware" of any changes to the way undergraduates were assessed in the past five years in any department, or in the university as a whole.
He referred to a previous statement by David Vandelinde, Warwick's vice-chancellor, who said: "If pressed, we must admit that we have no objective way of knowing whether the Warwick first is as tough to achieve as the Newtown University first or a first at any other university."