MPs ask QAA head to defend degree standards

July 10, 2008

The head of the university quality watchdog is to give evidence on degree standards to a cross-party committee of MPs, it was confirmed this week.

Amid claims that academics are under pressure to inflate grades, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee has said that it will hold a session with Peter Williams, the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

Phil Willis, chairman of the committee, said: "Whenever question marks are raised about the quality of our higher education qualifications, then alarm bells ring ... Higher education is so important to UK plc that we cannot allow accusations to go unchallenged."

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, and Roger Brown, the former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, have called for a full inquiry, claiming that academic standards are slipping.

Mr Willis said that the session with Mr Williams would help his committee to decide whether to call a full inquiry into standards. "We are not agreeing our new inquiries until the autumn, but I felt there was a real need to at least examine what was being said by the QAA because there is a lot of disquiet," he said.

"This is the quickest way to clarify the (views of the) QAA and to look at the current mechanisms that are in place to guarantee quality."

Professor Brown urged the committee to examine quality more broadly. "It is good news that the committee is conducting this evidence session," he said. "However, to be fully effective, it needs to look at all the factors affecting quality and standards and not just grade inflation and cheating."

In a letter to Times Higher Education last week, Mr Williams denied that academic standards had fallen and accused Professor Alderman of accepting "hearsay" statements.

In response, Professor Alderman this week invites Mr Williams to review first-hand evidence he has collected that, he says, casts doubt on the effectiveness of the external examiner system.

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