Reading University cannot guarantee that its students are treated fairly and equally, say quality chiefs.
Faculties calculate degree classifications differently and there are too few safeguards against favouritism or discrimination, the Quality Assurance Agency has warned in an audit report. Officials uncovered a case of a failing student being allowed to continue a degree course on spurious grounds, outside the rules.
The QAA concluded that there could be "substantial confidence" that Reading was properly safeguarding the standards of its awards and the quality of its programmes, but it was "more difficult for the university to be confident that it is securing equity in the treatment of students".
There is no guidance on how degree classifications should be determined consistently between faculties. All Reading degree classifications are determined on the basis of an average mark and a profile of achievement, but there are no guidelines to cover translating marks into a degree class.
The report notes "that there was wide variation in the relative contributions of second and third-year examination results to the determination of degree classification". The audit team "was unsure of the means by which the university had satisfied itself that such variations did not compromise... the equitable treatment of students".
Inconsistencies were found in the handling of student appeals against exam results. The QAA says that the university has "no standardised format for recording and handling claims by students that their academic performance had been adversely affected by mitigating circumstances". Such matters are dealt with informally, often by tutors after the exam boards had made decisions, and often without the involvement of external examiners.
"External examiners in one faculty had observed that the absence of a standard procedure gave rise to scope for divergences in... the treatment of students," the report says.
In one case a decision had been taken to allow a second-year student to progress "notwithstanding the normal rules of the department concerned, upon what seemed wholly pastoral grounds, apparently without evidence of what would normally be recognised as a mitigating circumstance and the written consent of the external examiner".
"The totality of the evidence suggested to the team that the university would be well-advised to systematise and codify its procedures pertaining to mitigating circumstances," the report says.
In some other areas, the university was given a more favourable report. It was commended for its management of the tutorial system, its support for international students and its good practice "in relation to staffing matters".