Many academics believe standards in broad subject areas are not comparable across higher education and that the concept of a minimum "threshold standard" has little meaning, says a report this week.
Differences in standards across a field of study amount to at least one class of degree, and in some institutions final-year papers are of a standard expected of second-year papers elsewhere, a survey of 34 subject associations found.
Growing diversity, the advent of more modular programmes and the traditional autonomy of institutions have made it hard to achieve comparable standards, according to the subject associations in English, biology, art and design, and business studies and management.
But there is believed to be much more correlation of standards at the level of specialisms within subject areas. And there is greater optimism about developing threshold standards for general academic and employment-related skills.
The report from Madelaine Atkins, dean of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, was commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council.
It says more flexibility in the design of learning programmes means it is getting harder to specify any core of knowledge or skill at the broad subject level.
Modularisation is thought to be weakening informed academic judgement on the all-round performance of students as institutions introduce complex, arithmetic procedures for aggregating marks into degree classifications.
The report says: "Although there had recently been a proliferation of new quality assurance procedures, none had addressed the fundamental problem that many lecturers were far from expert, accurate or reliable when assessing students' work."
Traditionally, the guarantor of comparable standards was the external examiner system, but associations in all four subject areas said that this was under great strain.
The survey also found that the concept of "threshold standards" had little meaning, except on vocational courses. Standards were understood mainly in terms of final-degree classifications.
"Far from regarding the 'pass' as the threshold, students and staff regard a second-class degree as the real minimum required. Even a third is seen as a failure," the report says.
The concerns uncovered by the survey helped inform the quality council's Graduate Standards Programme, which produced an interim report last year. The council is pursuing the concept of "graduateness" under which general academic skills might be defined.
Peter Wright, HEQC assistant director, said it was hoped the report's observations would stimulate greater interest within subject areas on the meaning of standards.
Threshold and Other Academic Standards, available from the Support Section, UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, Pounds 6.50.