Some universities consistently award a higher than average proportion of first and upper second class degrees, a national study has found. Relatively high scores have been maintained over more than 20 years despite below average entry requirements set by several of the institutions involved.
Data gathered on degrees in eight subject areas from 1973 to 1993 by "old" universities found "substantial variations" in awards between institutions.
The findings, detailed in a report published this week by the Higher Education Quality Council, confirm there has been an overall rise in the proportion of first and upper second degrees, and a drop in lower second and third classifications.
But its author, Keith Chapman, professor of geography at Aberdeen University, said the discovery that some universities have a consistent record of awarding a higher than average proportion of "good" degrees within several subject areas is more important.
Professor Chapman said his personal view was that there was now such diversity in the sector that the honours degree classification system had become "an anachronism". He pointed out that the external examiner system is designed to ensure that a degree in a subject awarded at one university is comparable in standard with one in the same subject at another university. He warns: "Systematic and persistent variations in the patterns of degree awarded for each subject between universities represent a direct challenge to this fundamental premise of the UK university system."
Lower standards in parts of the sector could be one of several explanations for some universities consistently awarding a higher than average proportion of first and upper seconds.
"The fact that one university consistently awards a higher proportion of good degrees than another in the same subject may indicate better teaching, lower standards or some combination of these and other factors," it adds.
It also challenges assumptions about comparability between subjects.
Inter-institutional Variability of Degree Results: an Analysis in Selected Subjects. Available from the Distribution Department, UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, Pounds 10.