More universities will face the prospect of departments receiving the equivalent of "unsatisfactory" quality gradings when the Higher Education Funding Council for England introduces its new system of assessment later this year, a HEFCE quality official has predicted.
Geographers attending a session on The Experience of Quality at last week's Institute of British Geographers conference, held at the University of Northumbria, heard Mike Emery of HEFCE's Quality Assessment Division say: "Some people think it will be easier to give a grade one (the lowest rank in the new system) than tell a vice chancellor that their department is unsatisfactory (the bottom of the present scale)."
He said this view was widespread among assessors. None of the "unsatisfactory" ratings so far awarded had related to failings under a single heading.
When the new system is introduced, with departments rated on a four-point numerical scale for six different aspects of their work and provision, a single grade one on any of the criteria will be sufficient to earn a "yellow card" and a subsequent visit one year later from the assessors.
A second failure will lead to HEFCE withdrawing some or all of its funding.
He also predicted that the new system might rapidly become unpopular with vice chancellors: "I suspect that some vice chancellors will get fed up with it and will want 'excellent' back as a grade."
He said that the unpopularity of "satisfactory" as a grading had been an important factor in the introduction of the new system.
The new system, which comes into force when the next assessment round begins in April this year, will not affect the geographers -- under assessment in the current round -- for several years. Mr Emery said assessors had so far completed 19 of the 40 or more geography visits planned.