When Professor Paul Buckland settled down in his garden one summer's evening to mark exam papers from his second-year archaeology students, he was expecting the usual range of responses. But it soon became clear that the scripts had plummeted to new depths of ignorance.
In one paper, the decline of elm trees was attributed to diseases passed on by dogs. Next, a student explained that the volcanic eruption in Pompeii had "changed the pattern of human evolution". By the time he read that farming caused smaller jaws in humans, his head was practically in his hands.
The professor failed 18 out of the 60 papers he marked. And that was where his problems began.
For three years, the academic has been embroiled in a conflict with Bournemouth University over its decision to overule his professional judgment on the standard of his students' work and increase their scores.
The battle has effectively ruined his career. At the lowest point, Professor Buckland was even forced to ask his 89-year-old father for financial help.
But last week, a decision by the Court of Appeal hopefully marked the end of his ordeal. To the academic's immense relief, the court upheld his contention that the south-coast university raised the grades of weak students without his knowledge, and that his resignation, when it refused to reinstate his marks, amounted to constructive dismissal.
But the 62-year-old's nightmare has also cast light on a more widespread issue that vice-chancellors steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. According to Professor Buckland, a battle for standards is raging within parts of the UK higher education sector.
On one side are academics anxious to maintain quality and control over the courses they teach. On the other are managers, generally in newer institutions, who regard students as pots of cash and care more about recruitment and drop-out rates than ensuring that students' marks reflect the work they do.
"The implications go way beyond Bournemouth," said Professor Buckland. "Before last week's ruling, the message sent out to universities was that you could bully staff into upping grades – 'if you don't give the marks we want, we'll get someone else to do it for us' – which is what happened to me."
The saga began in 2006 when his department decided to remark the papers the professor had failed – 14 after students had resat – even though a second marker endorsed his scores, as did the external examiner. On the basis of this fourth assessment, scores were increased by up to six percentage points, moving several students from a clear fail to a pass.
These were students, the professor said, who after two years of an archaeology degree did not know if the mesolithic age came before or after the neolithic.
"The papers were farmed out to someone who didn't have the necessary expertise and it was all done behind my back," said Professor Buckland, who lives in Sheffield with his wife, Joan.
"It makes a mockery of the entire system if the relevant expert in the field is not allowed to return the marks. We get students who have to work damned hard to get their degree. Then there are students who just drift through, spend most of their times in bars, being given the same degree. It's an insult to the people who have worked hard."
Over the last few years, as the effects of the relentless expansion of student numbers in the 1980s and 1990s have been felt, evidence has been emerging of "dumbing down" in some institutions.
The cases reveal staff under pressure to bump up results and ignore rampant plagiarism by students. If the pass rate is too low, lecturers are questioned by university examination boards, regardless of a student's attendance or the amount of work they put in. Any academic who sticks his head above the parapet to complain faces the wrath of university authorities.
Walter Cairns, a law lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, was kicked off the institution's academic board last year when he revealed in a submission to MPs on the universities select committee that 20 marks were added to the scores of around 90 students studying international business law in 2005 because their results were so bad.
Sue Evans, an economics lecturer at the same institution, told the committee that marks were frequently revised upwards without justification.
At De Montfort University, in Leicester, internal documents revealed that the university had "upgraded" a number of first- and second-year pharmacy students – effectively lowering the pass mark on one course to 26 per cent – after half of them failed their exams.
Staff who taught and marked the papers said that some students were simply "not up to the rigours of the programme" and, in many cases, "had a poor attitude to work".
Similar concerns have been raised by lecturers at Hertfordshire, Teesside and Central Lancashire Universities. Students are turning up on campuses less well prepared than ever before. Even those with passable A-levels are struggling to cope with the essay writing, book reading and independent work required at degree level.
Many academics blame the education students receive at secondary school. The argument is familiar – exams are getting easier and a narrower curriculum is failing to teach content which is crucial to further study.
Last week Sir Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, added weight to the argument. His government-commissioned report found that multiple choice, short answers and modular exams were damaging the study of maths and science.
The knock-on effect is that academics in some institutions are under increasing pressure to give undergraduates higher grades than they deserve. A recent poll of 500 dons found that 77 per cent felt coerced in to awarding inflated marks. Two thirds felt that the increase in first-class and upper-second degrees was not a sign of improving standards, and more than half said that reports that universities were dumbing down "were not overstated".
Professor Buckland, the first in his family, with his sister, to go to university and a staunch supporter of higher education expansion, agrees: "We have a ridiculous system where quality is gauged by the number of firsts you award. When I taught geography in Birmingham in the 1980s we went for three years without awarding a first. There was no complaint. A good 2:1 was recognised for the high-level qualification it was. Birmingham recruited top-class students but in those particular years, they were not quite the level of a first.
"If we did that now, there would be a public inquiry. In the past a 2:2 was a credible degree, now it's seen as almost the equivalent of a fail. That is an appalling situation. British degrees are no longer valued in the way they were on the continent."
A damning select committee report published last summer said the system for checking university standards was "out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced". It also accused vice-chancellors of "defensive complacency" over the system and said that whistleblowers, like Professor Buckland, needed more protection.
MPs recommended that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which checks that university procedures protect quality, be abolished or transformed to give it powers to police teaching and degree standards. Not everyone agreed with them, including Peter Williams, former head of the agency. He said that a "Spanish inquisition" of the university sector, one of the most successful in the world, was unwarranted.
More importantly, an Ofsted-style university inspectorate would be expensive. In an era of swingeing cuts to higher-education funding, pouring cash into this quango is not on the agenda.
On Friday, Bournemouth University decided not to appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling. In a statement, it said that the case was a matter of employment law and not a matter of academic standards.
"There is not and has not been an issue over quality and standards at Bournemouth University," said a spokesman. "The 2008 QAA audit said academic standards were sound."
For Professor Buckland, the decision, which will mean substantial compensation, could not come too soon. "It has been difficult for my family, my wife," he said. "We've been living on savings and the small amount of consultancy work I've got. I'm driving around in my father's car.
"The system really does work on fear. If you had a young family to support, you wouldn't be able to afford to put yourself in the firing line."
Source: The Telegraph.