A senior lecturer at a leading university has spoken out about the pressure across the sector to mark students' work leniently, detailing examples of his own marking decisions being overturned.
Stuart Derbyshire, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, described how an examiner increased the marks he had given his students and told him he had to "work harder to find the excellence" in his students' work.
Dr Derbyshire also told Times Higher Education that after he failed one essay for being "fatally flawed", the student got a D grade regardless.
Dr Derbyshire argues that grade inflation is occurring nationally but that "there is considerable reluctance to face the problem". He has submitted a paper on his concerns to the Commons Select Committee for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, which is carrying out an inquiry into university standards. He was this week backed by some of his students.
The University of Birmingham insists that independent external examiners ensure consistency and transparency in marking and that it is not unusual for academics to be asked to look again at marks.
In 2006-07, 13 per cent of UK graduates received a first-class degree, compared with 8 per cent in 1996-97. Times Higher Education's recent poll of more than 500 readers found that seven out of ten believed that rising numbers of firsts do not reflect improving standards.
Dr Derbyshire spent nine years working in US higher education before returning to Britain in 2005. He said his distribution of grades for students at Birmingham was "skewed to the left" relative to the school average. Although he was initially supported, he said that as he gained responsibility for more courses, his "outlier" status became more apparent and pressure to be lenient mounted.
In one instance, he recalled, an examiner added three marks to the results for every student on a course. Dr Derbyshire recalled that when he complained, the examiner said: "We can't work according to what it was like 20 years ago. We have to find excellence wherever we can - you need to work harder to find the excellence."
In another case, Dr Derbyshire said that the way one of his courses was moderated "meant that an essay I failed for being fatally flawed ended up getting a D".
"The student concerned was then profiled from a 2:2 to a 2:1."
Under school criteria an A grade is awarded for - among other things - near-perfect understanding of the theoretical issues with clear conclusions drawn from evidence. D-grade criteria include a basic understanding of theories with unclear conclusions and a reliance on lecture notes for the majority of the answer.
"Based on those criteria I see As and Ds in roughly equal numbers whereas the school sees As much more often and Ds much more rarely," Dr Derbyshire said.
The department's attitude is to be pragmatic about grade inflation, he suggested: "The university moves up the league tables, the students get better grades for less work - we're turning a decent process into something less, but day to day it feels as though there are no losers."
Dr Derbyshire said that he believed the pressure being exerted is the same throughout the sector - "It's more along the lines of everyone having accepted that things have changed but without talking about it. There's an embarrassing uncle around and he's not exactly benign, but everyone ignores him because what can you do? Shoot him?"
Greg Hollin was a student taught by Dr Derbyshire as a third-year undergraduate and as a masters student. Mr Hollin said that Dr Derbyshire's marking was a "fairly major concern to a great number of students", some of whom complained to the department head.
"Dr Derbyshire made clear ... that he would not give poor work good marks. I found it staggering how many of my fellow students apparently heard this phrase as 'I will not give good marks regardless of quality'," Mr Hollin said.
"I remember one fellow student who received a particularly poor mark being quite upset ... When I asked them if they believed their work was of good quality they replied, 'Well ... no.' This student's experience sums up Dr Derbyshire's marking: harsh but fair."
Mr Hollin said that Dr Derbyshire's approach helped him. "The threat (if you can call it that) that poor is not good enough very much sharpened (my) senses."
Another former student, Grace Mansah-Owusu, said: "He gave me very good feedback throughout the module and although I didn't get the best grade, the teaching depth and quality was the best that I received."
Another, Nick Hylands-White, said that Dr Derbyshire wants his students to get good grades, "but also to realise that they've got to put in the hard work to achieve that".
He added: "I think a lot of students have forgotten that attending university is still a privilege and not a right. If they manage to complete the course, and end up with a less than satisfactory grade, they have only themselves to blame. It is not up to the tutors to make sure the students pass."
A spokesman for the University of Birmingham said: "The system of independent external examiners plays a crucial role in ensuring the consistency and transparency of marking across all universities. It is certainly not unusual for an external examiner to suggest academics look again at individual marks, indeed this is part of their function. We believe the external-examiner system at Birmingham is robust and provides useful additional support for academics."