Minimum university entry requirements must be imposed to halt "dumbing down" in higher education, Liberal Democrat education leaders will argue at their annual conference next week.
No one with less than the equivalent of three grade Cs at A level should be allowed a place, Phil Willis, the party's further and higher education spokesman, will suggest to conference delegates in Brighton.
This controversial proposal follows a national survey by the party that found some institutions accepting applicants for this academic year with as little as two Es. New universities offering teacher training, media studies or social sciences courses were setting the lowest entry standards.
Mr Willis told The THES that the findings indicated that while A-level grades were going up, universities were lowering the point scores they found acceptable. There was a danger that institutions, fearing prospective students would be put off by Pounds 1,000 tuition fees, were making soft offers to ensure filling places, he said.
"There is a worrying downward trend in the requirements of offers made. My concern is that that will continue as students begin to think twice about joining a degree course that does not necessarily lead to a job paying big bucks," he said.
A cap on expansion should be introduced as an additional quality safeguard in the face of continuing efficiency gains planned by the government, Mr Willis added. Such a move would be contrary to the government's stated aim, in its response to the Dearing report on higher education, to resume expansion.
"There is growing pressure on universities to take more students when students are becoming more aware and discerning. There is a danger that, with the continuing reduction in funding, those students will get a raw deal because they will not get the quality they have the right to expect.
"We now have to ask whether expansion in higher education is the panacea everyone hoped for." Mr Willis insisted that his proposals did not run counter to efforts to widen participation.
Universities should work more with local schools and colleges to encourage potential high-fliers. They should be given funding incentives to achieve access targets, while at the same time maintaining appropriate standards of entry. "At the moment, universities are just lazy. They want to take the best, but they don't go out to find it. When the best does not come forward, they will take anyone in order to fill places," Mr Willis said.
The Liberal Democrats will release full details of their survey after the conference. They have written to David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, suggesting the government should commission further research into entry standards and consider what should be done together with vice-chancellors.
But the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said there was no evidence that entry standards were falling. chief executive Tony Higgins said setting a national minimum point score might mean excluding some people who would otherwise have gone on to get a good degree.
"We think the institutions know what they are doing. Universities are unlikely to fill places with people who look like guaranteed failures," he said.
Other LibDem proposals
* Create a single lifelong learning funding body
* Regional development agencies to coordinate funding
* Universities and colleges to be funded to recruit disadvantaged students designated by postcodes and national targets set
* Everyone should receive an Individual Learning Account for post-school education and training with contributions from the state, employers, students and their families
Non-state contributions would attract interest
* Reverse the decision to charge full-time students part of their tuition costs and oppose top-up fees
* All FE lecturers to have qualified FE teacher status and a new career structure
Leader, page 16