London Metropolitan University plans to give some students their exam results this summer without having the standards checked by external examiners, The Times Higher has learnt.
The move, which has prompted the claim that the university is "riding roughshod" over academic standards, could leave London Met students uncertain of the validity of their marks. It raises the possibility that some borderline students could be failed when they deserved a pass or vice versa.
A number of the university's external examiners are refusing to verify exam standards as part of an international academic boycott of London Met. The boycott has been organised by lecturers' union Natfhe in protest against the planned imposition of new staff contracts.
Documents obtained this week by The Times Higher reveal that London Met has written to examiners who have refused to carry out their duties. It has told them that if they do not confirm marking standards by the end of August, the university will "assume" that the externals have approved the marks.
Robert Aylett, deputy vice-chancellor (academic), wrote to external examiners engaged in the boycott at the end of last month.
He said: "You have received samples of student work that relate to recent assessments. To date we have not received confirmation from you that the marking standards for the modules for which you are responsible are within the normal expectations.
"Unless we hear from you to the contrary by 12 noon on Wednesday 28th August 2004, we will assume that... you have confirmed that the range of marks given by internal examiners to students fairly reflect the standards of those students' performance, having regard to standards elsewhere in UK higher education."
Natfhe said 25 examiners had contacted it to raise the alarm about the letter.
One external examiner replied to Dr Aylett in an email that was also copied to the Quality Assurance Agency: "I am not undertaking any duties connected with external examining... you cannot therefore assume that I have confirmed anything (indeed the scripts in question remain in their unopened, sealed Jiffy bags).
"If there has been no external validation of the marking of the scripts you sent me, then there will be no way of judging whether or not these marks are comparable with national standards and whether or not the marking has been consistent and fair.
"Any students receiving these unvalidated marks will lack the reassurance that their marks are compatible with those from other degree-awarding institutions."
According to the QAA, the system of external examining - in which an institution pays academics from other institutions to provide a peer-review check on standards - is the principal means by which autonomous universities maintain nationally comparable standards.
A spokeswoman for London Met said that it had called on the services of 500 external examiners for the current assessment process and that 470 had acted as normal and fulfilled their contractual obligations. It said that of those whom the university had written to, only six have so far refused to carry out their duties.
It said it was now "considering how to ensure that students are not disadvantaged while acting within the university's own regulations and the QAA code".
"It is regrettable that a small number of externals have interpreted the academic boycott as a reason not to fulfil their obligations to the university and its students.
"It is also regrettable that Natfhe has apparently taken a disingenuous position by not clearly advising that the academic boycott it called for should not include such action."
The industrial dispute was sparked when London Met issued dismissal notices to 387 staff from the pre-merger London Guildhall University, informing them that they would be dismissed from September 1 if they did not accept new contracts.
Natfhe said that it was ready to end the action and return to talks as soon as the university withdrew the threat of staff dismissal.
Roger Kline, head of the universities department of Natfhe, said: "We are astonished that London Met is riding roughshod over academic standards and is putting its reputation at risk like this."