Suggestions from overseas that UK masters degrees are too short and lack credibility pose "a real danger" to international student recruitment, according to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
The report on the Bologna Process, which aims to harmonise university qualifications across Europe, says the UK's one-year masters courses are being judged "inappropriately" against two-year masters offered elsewhere in Europe.
The two-year masters degrees are seen as preparation for a PhD, but the UK masters serve a different function. Bologna ministers have agreed that UK masters are compliant with the harmonisation process, but not all countries agree, Hepi says.
"It would be a serious matter if these perceptions - however misguided - damaged the currency of these qualifications," Hepi says. "There are undoubtedly some that are trying to undermine the credibility of our one-year courses," the report notes.
In 2006, the Norwegian quality assurance agency, NOKUT, published a paper comparing Norway's two-year masters with those in the UK. The report said: "It is not clear at the moment what this difference (in duration) exactly means in practice regarding the skills and competencies of graduates."
But NOKUT concluded: "We are still of the opinion that the difference in duration leads to a substantial difference in learning outcomes, that interferes with degree equivalence for both the taught and the research masters degree."
In its response to the report, the UK argued that Norway's refusal of degree equivalence was at odds with the Bologna Process.
In its report, Hepi says of the NOKUT paper: "The study did not on the whole compare like with like and was largely disregarded by the UK partners of the study." But it adds: "The paper did reflect the sentiments of a number of administrations in the EHEA (European Higher Education Area) and needs to be taken seriously."
Objections such as those of the Norwegians "pose a real danger even if they are nakedly protectionist or ill-founded", Hepi continues. "The NOKUT paper suggests, in public, a concern that the UK one-year masters degree is less rigorous than other EHEA member variants."
The ramifications of this are "potentially troubling", Hepi says. "Our strength lies in the knowledge that Bologna ministers have endorsed our approach ... nevertheless, external perceptions of the value of UK HE qualifications have clear commercial implications for export-orientated UK HEIs, many of whom rely on international student fee income for their viability."
Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi's director, told Times Higher Education that there were "whisperings in the margins of European Union meetings" criticising UK masters.
A recent article in The Sunday Times reported complaints from China about the "very poor quality" of some UK masters courses taken by Chinese students.
David Zweig, director of the Centre on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was quoted as saying: "Finding employment has become increasingly difficult as many returnees have an MA from very poor universities in England." He said Chinese officials had asked him to "kick the Brits" over the issue.