Australian universities claim that their undergraduate failure rate ranges from 10 to 15 per cent, but a senate inquiry into higher education has been told the true figure should be nearer 30 per cent.
Kim Sawyer, a senior Melbourne University academic, told the inquiry that passing the 20 per cent of students who should have failed would lead to a long-term decline in national competency levels.
Dr Sawyer, an associate professor at Melbourne's Centre of Financial Studies, said academic standards had fallen sharply in the past 20 years and that student examination papers of even five years ago could not be used today.
"Mass education has produced large classes with a long tail of under-performing students," he told senators. "Failure rates have remained static despite the presence of this group of under-performersI The system has developed a bias to insuring the degrees of 10 to 30 per cent of students who would not have been admitted to the university of 1970."
Dr Sawyer obtained his PhD from the Australian National University in 1980 and spent five years teaching at universities in the United States. He has supervised more than 70 honours, masters and PhD students in the US and Australia and currently supervises 11 PhD students.
He said that in mid-semester examinations, where there was no grade adjustment, failure rates were invariably 30 per cent or higher in most universities. Yet by the end of the year, only a small fraction failed to pass the course.
"Apart from academics in my own department, I speak often with colleagues from engineering, history and science," he said. "The comment that the real failure rate is much higher than official statistics indicate is the same in all departments although it is probably most pronounced in business faculties."
Because university performance indicators centred on throughput ratios, there were significant incentives to graduate students in minimum time, Dr Sawyer said. Low failure rates were seen to represent efficiency rather than a decline in standards.
"Artificially low failure rates and grade inflation have meant the major hurdle faced by students in Australian universities is entry into a programme," he said. "Many academics have remarked that degrees could be awarded at entry."
Large numbers of international students whose first language was not English had compounded the problems. Such students were among the best and worst but were disproportionately represented in the lower tail of the distribution - particularly in professional masters programmes.
Among several recommendations he presented to the inquiry, Dr Sawyer proposed an education summit to establish a set of national higher education standards. He said Australia should adopt a uniform grading system for undergraduates as in America and that in every subject a rank distribution should be given.
A national entry test for students seeking to enrol in a university should also be introduced, he added.