The university standards watchdog has made a raft of recommendations to shore up the sector against allegations of “dumbing down”.
National guidelines should be developed for external examiners, universities should provide students with information about the contact they can expect with tutors and English-language tests for international students should be reviewed, the Quality Assurance Agency said.
The agency has been conducting inquiries in response to public concerns raised last year about academic standards and quality in higher education.
In a final report published today, the QAA concludes that higher education is fundamentally sound but that some areas show room for improvement.
The watchdog investigated student workload and contact hours, English-language requirements for international students, recruitment practices for international students, the use of external examiners, and assessment practices.
It found that external examiners were held in high regard in the sector, with many regarding the external examining process as “a keystone” in supporting academic standards and quality in the UK.
However, “a number of cases have arisen where external examiners are reported to feel compromised by the demands placed upon them and/or where they feel that their reports have not been given sufficiently serious consideration by the host institution”, the report says. Concern was also raised about the transparency of the procedures that universities use to select and appoint examiners.
“Institutional processes for the identification and appointment of external examiners appear to lack transparency to observers outside higher education (and some within it),” the QAA concludes.
It calls for the development of nationally agreed “minimum expectations” for the role of all external examiners and for guidance on the processes used to identify, train and support them.
On international students, the inquiry found that while international students in UK higher education were widely welcomed, language difficulties sometimes arose.
“Specific challenges have been identified with regard to the admission of students with English-language skills that are either insufficient to deal with the demands of their programme of study or have the potential to have a detrimental effect on the learning experience of all students,” the report says.
“While institutions recognise the importance of providing English-language and other support for international students on a continuing basis, there appears to be some variation in the availability and/or effectiveness of such support mechanisms,” it says.
Those interviewed for the inquiry said that not all universities found the IELTS system for testing language proficiency as helpful as it could be.
Staff reported cases where the validity of some international students’ entry qualifications had been investigated following concerns about their ability to cope with the demands of their course, and cases where false academic certificates were uncovered.
The report recommends a review of English-language tests and the development of guidance for international students about the support they can expect.
Opinion on the significance attached to contact hours was divided among academics who spoke to the QAA, but interviewees agreed it was important to explain to students why course structures, and the nature and level of contact, varied between universities and disciplines.
The watchdog says there should be a national discussion, at discipline level, about the range of contact hours appropriate to the student learning experience.
Assessment is described by the QAA as a “dynamic and challenging area”.
Variation in the way that universities’ assessment regulations are applied by individual schools or departments has attracted criticism, the report says, while some academics have argued that the rationales for particular approaches to assessment and degree classification need to be more open to scrutiny and comparison.
The inquiry also identified “widespread criticism” of the degree-classification system.
It calls for a review of assessment practice “aimed at improving the robustness and consistency of assessment and classification practices within and between institutions”.
Finally, the report says that more effective ways are needed of informing the public about quality and standards assurance in higher education. It recommends the development of external quality assurance review methods that use primary and secondary sources of evidence.
Peter Williams, the QAA’s chief executive, told Times Higher Education in March that the agency’s next round of institutional audits might pay closer attention to first-hand evidence of academic standards, such as external examiners’ reports.