That is the recommendation of a new report by the thinktank CentreForum, which says that action is needed to make the sector financially sustainable while assuring quality.
The report, Degrees of quality: how to deliver the courses we need at prices we can afford, argues that the government’s bid to “marketise” the higher education system to force down fees will fail.
It says several “market failures”, such as a lack of clarity about university quality, will frustrate its efforts.
This lack of information is largely due to the fact that institutions award their own degrees, using exams they design and mark themselves, the thinktank says.
Instead, the UK should develop a new system, with the majority of universities offering degrees accredited by one of the research elite or by an external provider.
This would cut down on costs, it claims, since most universities would not have to spend time designing curricula and could concentrate resources on teaching.
They could then offer degrees more cheaply, and students could choose whether to study at a “major institution”, or take a low-cost degree from a “regular institution”, with the quality assured by accreditation from a recognised body.
The report, published today, says: “In essence two types of institutions would emerge. ‘Research’ institutions – most obviously those within the Russell Group but including some others – would focus on research, whilst ‘regular’ institutions would focus primarily on teaching.
“Costs would be significantly lower at the latter, since staff and facilities could be used more efficiently, for example by offering degree courses over two years.
“To ensure quality, a set of standardised courses and exams would be designed by ‘research’ institutions and other expert bodies – to be delivered through a ‘collegiate’ type arrangement in teaching-based institutions.
“Exams would be marked externally, organised by those designing the courses rather than those teaching them, as is the case now.”
The report says that standardising courses in this way would, for example, allow students to study for a University of London degree taught at Southampton Solent University.
Gill Wyness, a researcher at CentreForum and author of the report, claimed that such a system would sharpen competition between institutions since students could easily compare courses, and would stop universities using high tuition fees to signal quality.
“It would also put an end to the system of universities setting, marking and awarding their own degrees. This would result in a system similar to the current A-level system - and similar to the pre-1992 system where the Council for National Academic Awards awarded academic degrees at colleges and polytechnics,” she said.
Opinion: Why universities should consider offering external degrees
Gill Wyness, researcher at CentreForum and author of the report 'Degrees of quality: how to deliver the courses we need at prices we can afford':
England needs a higher education system where universities can offer undergraduate degree courses at a much lower cost than £9,000 a year, and where the students attending them can still be guaranteed good quality teaching.
At the moment, higher education is characterised by “information asymmetry”. Students are poorly informed about university quality. They don’t really know whether the courses they have chosen are good value for money, whether the teaching they receive will be of a high standard, or whether any of it will lead to the job they want.
In response to this, universities set high fees to signal quality, partly out of fear that prospective students will be put off applying to institutions that charge less. This is bad for students.
The government’s solution, set out in its recent White Paper, is to offer students more information on courses, such as teaching hours and graduate salaries. This is certainly an improvement on the current system. But since universities are allowed to set and mark their own exams, it will never really be possible to judge the comparative quality of degrees.
This is what our new report Degrees of quality seeks to address. In it, we call for a system in which research-intensive universities design standardised curricula that can be taught in the majority of institutions.
By offering external degrees – as we propose – universities can lower costs. They won’t have to spend time designing curricula and can concentrate resources on teaching instead. Students can choose a cheaper degree knowing that it will be of the same standard as one taught at a major institution.
Moving to common standards and independent marking will be an effective quality control measure, similar to A levels.
A levels are objective and directly comparable. No matter what school or college they are taken in, A levels are A levels. They help employers compare candidates. They help students, parents and policy makers assess schools. The method set out in our report will do the same for degrees.
Our system does not call for existing universities to be stripped of degree awarding powers. That would be damaging to institutions that had built up a reputation in certain subjects.
What we are suggesting is for individual universities to make arrangements with major institutions to offer accredited degrees on some courses.
Obvious courses will be those where curricula are relatively similar across institutions, and where a particular institution has no particular expertise beyond that which is widely available. Over time, the model could be expanded if these courses prove popular with students.
The effect will be a sharpening of competition between universities and an improvement in teaching standards. Quality will be much easier to compare across institutions and it will mean that degrees are equally valued – no matter what institution they were from.