A "league table culture" embraced by vice-chancellors is driving down university standards, an academic has said.
Geoffrey Alderman made the claim in his inaugural lecture as Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.
He said: "The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league-table near rivals, and if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes, the argument is put about that 'peer' institutions must do the same.
"The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque bidding game in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the altar of public image."
The changing student body, he said, also bore some of the responsibility.
"They are less interested in the acquisition of knowledge and of the critical skills needed to evaluate it, and more interested merely in acquiring and regurgitating those segments of knowledge necessary to obtain a degree," he said.
Professor Alderman, who was former head of quality assurance at Middlesex University, lamented standards of English literacy at universities, particularly among international students, and said lecturers were under pressure to "mark positively" to compensate.
"Ultimately the blame for the erosion of academic standards lies at the doors of the senior managers and the governing boards to whom they are answerable," he concluded.