A crackdown has been announced against universities with artificial inflation of grades, or when the quality of courses falls below expectations.
The Students Office (OfS) has proposed new requirements allowing more frequent intervention at English universities and colleges to protect the quality and standards of higher education.
The proposals – which are now open for consultation – include new detailed registration conditions for quality and standards.
Institutions that do not address concerns about artificial rating inflation or poor quality could potentially face financial penalties, or their registration could be revoked, the OfS said.
Lord Wharton, OfS President, said: “Our proposals signal a significant change in the way the OfS regulates quality and standards.
“They clearly set out the requirements that we believe are necessary to protect the significant investment of students and taxpayers in higher education.
“They also provide us with the platform to respond robustly and confidently when we see low-quality evidence.
“Higher education courses need to challenge students and equip them with the skills they need to be successful in their careers.
“Students from all walks of life must be supported to succeed without lowering their expectations for academic success.
“Qualifications awarded by universities need to be credible to the public, without implying that students and employers are being harmed by grade inflation. Our proposals are designed to ensure this is the case. “
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that more than one in three students (35%) of UK universities obtained a first-class degree in 2019/20, up from 28% in 2018/19. This was more than double the percentage of those who scored first in 2009/10 (14 percent).
The increase came after a number of institutions decided to take a “no harm” approach to assessment due to the pandemic.
This approach generally ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their achievement. Lord Wharton said OfS has seen “too many examples” of concern for students – including lessons that are not delivered well, resources not available and assessment that is unclear or unfair .
He added: “The regulator must be able to investigate these concerns and we will do so vigorously. When our demands are not met, we will not hesitate to use our statutory enforcement powers and publicly explain the actions we have taken.
Universities and colleges in England need to be registered with the OfS if they want to access public funds, for example for their students to receive government loans for tuition fees.
The OfS has a range of powers to sanction institutions if they are found to have violated a condition of their registration, including financial penalties and revocation of a registration.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “Our clear commitment is to improve standards for all. I therefore welcome the Student Bureau’s consultation on quality regulation and standards, which lays the foundation for quality improvement. We are clear that this must lead to real results for students and universities. ”
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “World-renowned UK universities are fully committed to maintaining their quality and high standards and UUK will work with our members to respond to this consultation.
“The overwhelming majority of courses are of high quality and value for money for students and universities are already taking steps to tackle the small number of courses that could offer more to students, taxpayers and employers. “
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