Cambridge University is selling courses with "sloppy standards" and vague marking systems, students have claimed.
One tutor has admitted that lecturers were "less than competent" in handling new assessment criteria on a programme deemed equivalent to the first year of a degree. Yet students have been refused a reassessment of their gradings, it was alleged this week.
Some students, who are soon to be awarded a foundation certificate in counselling and groupwork by Cambridge University's board of continuing education, have never received a grade for some of their core coursework. Others say they were failed after being told they had passed.
Concerns have been raised with the university, professional associations and local continuing education groups. Fifty students who had paid fees of almost Pounds 1,000 over two years to the university's continuing education department completed the course last year. Some claim tutors had openly admitted that upgrading the ten-year-old course in 1993 had caused problems.
Michael Richardson, the university's director of continuing education, said that appeals against marks and complaints about the course were being dealt with through the usual quality control processes. A spokeswoman added: "We feel confident the director of continuing education will handle this matter in the proper way."
The department is considering appeals from two students, but others say they have had no replies to their letters complaining about grading or have been told they must accept their marks or spend another Pounds 460 to retake their final year.
Ellen Stocking, a further education lecturer who joined the course in the hope that it would help her career, said fudged grading criteria and unmarked work had left her feeling dissatisfied with her pass mark. Tutors failed to explain how marks were being allocated, and one of her assignments was never given a grade, she claimed.
Paul Nixon, a social science researcher, says he was also awarded a pass despite having an "obligatory assignment" unmarked. In October last year, he wrote to course tutors to complain.
He was told that confusion over marking had arisen from new assessment criteria which had been imposed on the course to give it a credit rating under the university's credit accumulation and transfer scheme.
Course tutor Dilys Phipps wrote to him: "We are aware that our initial application of these criteria may have been less than competent, and regret the confusion this has caused." She added: "For the ongoing work we applied one scale, and for the final grade we applied another. In as far as marks mean anything in this field, your ongoing marks are a much truer reflection of the standard of your work.
"However, in terms of the final grade, we were advised that 40 per cent was the pass mark, and where we felt students had met the requirements of the course adequately, we awarded this (or thereabouts)." Dr Nixon said this was evidence of "sloppy standards" and asked: "Is this qualification worth the paper it is written on?"
Melody Gilbey, a voluntary charity worker, said she was shocked to receive a letter saying she had failed after tutors had told students only a few months before that everyone had passed. In a letter to her, Dr Richardson admitted an "error" had been made in not making it clear that she had, in fact, failed.
Complaints about the course are now also worrying some outside organisations. Carolyn Daines, a member of the local Workers' Educational Association which runs some courses in partnership with the university, said the new CATS regime had raised serious questions about standards.