Universities have defended the effectiveness of self-regulation and rejected further external scrutiny. Universities in the UK currently operate on a self-regulatory basis, which means having control over degree grades and overall public image including satisfaction surveys and plagiarism.

The chief executive of Universities UK, Baroness Warwick, stated that self-regulation did not mean a “free for all” policy. Universities UK say that the sector already has “robust arrangements for assuring quality.” But despite this assurance, MPs are to begin a comprehensive inquiry into university standards.

In response to the “intense media interest” over degree standards, Universities UK has issued a guide that shows how quality is maintained. It explains that self-regulation is consistently monitored, rejecting any suspicion of flaws within the system.

Universities UK’s position was supported by university chiefs at a meeting in the House of Lords, who said that checks carried out by universities were an effective assurance of standards, rebutting the notion of a conflict of interests.

Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons’ universities select committee, warned that the threat to quality is the most serious issue that faces higher education. He added that the UK has “the most prestigious higher education system in the world,” annually bringing in several billion pounds to the country, and he emphasised the urgency with which the public’s trust in the quality of the system needed to be reaffirmed.

The higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), claims that so far not a single complaint has been received from students, academics, employers or universities. Peter Williams, the head of the QAA, received further questioning over how universities could be assessed beyond comparisons with other institutions, as not a single institution falls in the below-standard category. Some MPs argue that such an ambiguous system is unfair for employers, students and taxpayers.

Emphasis is also being placed on degree classification. Williams points out that “there is no common definition of what a first is.” As it stands, universities have the power to decide the number of first class degrees, and Williams claims that it is unfair that publicly-funded universities lack standards of comparability.

Willis said he agreed that there was urgency for an external body to present evidence about the reliability of university standards, whilst rejecting an “Ofsted for higher education.” He added, “if universities are going to retain their reputations, they have to be more transparent.” He said that universities needed to operate with a more open-access policy, whereby academics and students would be free to raise concerns and issue complaints.

Willis cautions universities that they are responsible for getting their houses in order. “This is a multi-billion pound business and you cannot afford for short-term gain to have the reputation tarnished. It has to retain its currency in an international market.”

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