Academic assessment practices vary so much within and between some universities that students increasingly find themselves in a results lottery, it was claimed this week.
A report by the Quality Assurance Agency has uncovered variations in the assessment practices that are "tolerated" between departments and found inconsistencies in the rules for calculating degree classifications.
In one case, the QAA found that students in some departments had to jump higher "academic hurdles" to achieve an honours degree than students elsewhere in the same university.
In another, joint honours students were much less likely to gain a first-class degree than single honours students at the same institution.
The QAA warns that in several cases universities were not able to demonstrate that their students were being treated fairly. And in some cases, academic standards were in question.
Commenting on the report, Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that a growing "results lottery" was likely to lead to more litigation, particularly when students have to pay up to £3,000 a year for courses from this autumn.
"We have very stringent national examinations at 16 and 18, but degree exams are very much in the hands of individual universities and individual departments. I'm afraid idiosyncratic practices have grown up, and many academics regard assessment as an unfortunate chore," Professor Smithers said. "If we learn from the experience of America, we will almost certainly see an increase in litigation. Then universities will have to be ready to demonstrate in court that their practices are fair and consistent."
The QAA completed more than 100 institutional audits by the end of last year. This week, it published a report on the standard of assessment practices, based on the first 70 audits carried out, as part of its "outcomes from institutional audit" report series.
The agency says that ten of the 70 audit reports highlight features of good assessment practice, while the reports contain 41 separate recommendations advising institutions to take action to address specific problems.
The overview report says that many institutions have improved their assessment practices and are adhering to the QAA's code of practice on assessment.
But it says that a number of audit reports express concern about the "level and justifiability" of variations in assessment practices. "Several reports discuss the effects of variability on the need to ensure that students are treated fairly. In most cases, reports conclude that further progress will be required before this can be demonstrated," the report says.
Reports on individual institutions found different policies on penalties for the late submission of coursework operating within the same university.
In one case it found "significant differences" between the way different faculties treated students who failed a final-year model.
The QAA warns that some audit reports highlight concerns about the practices of assessment boards. "In such cases, the chief concern is the potential for individual students to be treated unfairly and for the academic standard of awards to be called into question," the report says.
The report adds that assessment boards are generally discharging their duties properly in ensuring that assessment practices are rigorous and reliable.
Julian Nicholds, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said: "It is unacceptable that a student in one faculty has to meet unreasonable criteria to achieve the same classification as a student in another faculty."
Michael Prosser, director of research and evaluation at the Higher Education Academy, said the academy "recognises the issues identified in the report" and will meet representatives of the 74 centres for excellence in teaching and learning and specialist subject centres to "identify priorities for work in this area".