Essex University has been awarding too many first-class degrees and it cannot properly justify its claims to "the highest quality, judged by international standards", inspectors have warned.
Inspectors on a Quality Assurance Agency audit found "a general relaxation" of the minimum threshold between first-class and upper second-class degrees.
"As a consequence the team reflected on whether, in general, parameters for the award of first-class honours might not err on the side of generosity," the report said.
"There were cases where the terminology of descriptions of degree classification standards varied from that of the great majority of schemes," the report said. It found that "reductions in degree-class thresholds applied in some multidisciplinary degree schemes".
The inspectors have urged Essex to set up a "speedier, less reactive and more robust" system to ensure that standards between its degree courses are comparable. They also warned that the university's approach to overseeing quality within departments was too leisurely and relied too much on consensus.
The report said: "The university describes its institutional quality strategy as implicit rather than explicit. This implicit approach sits uneasily with some of its claims and objectives."
The auditors found that the university could not prove its mission statement commitment to the "highest quality, judged by international standards". "The question 'how will the university know whether or not it is achieving its mission?' cannot easily be answered," the report said.
Internal quality-assurance mechanisms "can permit rather lengthy periods to pass without any scrutiny", and central quality assurance officers "are not necessarily well-informed".
Essex compares badly to some of its peers, the auditors found, and "does not, as a university, place itself in the forefront of developments in teaching and learning."
The report found that the university could underwrite the quality and standards of its education provision "in broad terms". It noted that "many effective quality-assurance mechanisms and procedures are in place: these provide the basis for the creation of a more systematic, institutionwide management of quality assurance".
Pro vice-chancellor Geoffrey Crossick said that the report was "generally fair and balanced" and that it included significant commendations regarding the university's recent innovations, such as its academic standards committee and its teaching and learning policy.
"But there is always room for improvement, of course," said Professor Crossick. "Internal processes had already identified for attention some of the areas singled out by the QAA, but the assessors have also pointed to one or two areas which we shall need to think about carefully."