“Those wanting a guaranteed qualification are advised to apply to Durham, Worcester, Oxford, Liverpool, Surrey, Bath, University of East London, Abertay, Arts University Bournemouth, Sunderland or Edinburgh”. So says The Times in a recent piece about the institutions most likely to award degrees to students taking the final exams of their degrees.

But it’s not intended as a recommendation: the newspaper is “naming and shaming” these institutions – which include prestigious Oxbridge Universities and Russell Group members – for not failing a single final-year student. The report cites not only these eleven universities, at which 100% of final-year students were awarded a degree, but also a number of others – again including elite Russell Group institutions – where at least 99% of students who entered their final exams were awarded a degree.

Is having every student pass a bad thing?

The 100% pass rate feeds into the ongoing debate about university standards. Standards are, perhaps inevitably, pretty much always deemed to be falling, especially by those who are critical of universities and Higher Education in the UK. Recent stories about the rising proportion of undergraduates achieving First Class degrees were similarly interpreted as indicative of falling standards.

Vigilance about the standards of university degrees is, in and of itself, a healthy enough thing, especially given the trend in recent years to position universities as service providers and their students as “customers”: given the cost of a university education these days it’s reasonable to assume that anything less than a degree at the end of it all would result in dissatisfied “customers”!

Are students really getting an easier ride these days?

Perhaps, but it’s extremely difficult to tell for certain, and it’s not as simple as the bald statistic makes it sound. For one thing, the structure of degree courses has changed far more than the “falling standards” narrative acknowledges, as have approaches to teaching. The article in The Times measures its 100% pass rate stat against students taking their “finals” – but for many if not most university courses this is an outdated concept. Where once final-year summative exams – or “finals” – taken at the very end of a three- or four-year course determined the classification of the entire degree, these days many degree courses are entirely modular. Marks for exams taken at the end of the first semester of the second year are weighted equally with those taken in the final semester of the course.

This has several implications. Firstly, there’s nothing particularly special about “finals” in many institutions: like any other exams, they reflect performance in the modules taken that semester. Poor performance in these exams doesn’t necessarily mean a poor performance overall. Secondly, modular degrees give students and their instructors a far better sense of their progress than traditional degree programmes where the final exams were the be-all and end-all. Failing students are identified much earlier and can be targeted for additional support, placed on probation, or, in rare circumstances, advised to retake a year or drop out altogether.

It might once have been possible for a student to muddle through three years of lectures without learning the information and skills they needed to obtain their degree – and for this only to become apparent after they failed their finals. But these days, if a university’s academic assessment and pastoral care structures are up to the job, virtually no students should be entered into their “finals” if there’s a reasonable chance they’ll fail to obtain a degree.

A duty of care

It’s in the interests of everyone in society – from students to employers to the universities themselves – that confidence in Higher Education standards remains high. But allowing students to enter their final round of exams without being virtually assured of obtaining a degree doesn’t necessarily signify rigour; in fact, it arguably indicates the opposite: that universities have missed the opportunity to identify those in need of additional support, and failed in their duty to provide a quality educational experience to those students. Perhaps, instead of viewing low failure rates with suspicion, we should celebrate them as a sign that universities are closely monitoring the progress of their students and safeguarding their interests.

And maybe, just maybe, you should read that list in The Times as a recommendation after all…