Geoffrey Alderman, currently a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, has an article in the Guardian about the decline of standards in British universities. He refers to a case at Bournemouth University where officials overrode a decision by a professor and examination board to fail thirteen students. Apparently, the officials thought it unreasonable that students were required to do any reading to pass the course. He also comments on the remarkable increase in the number of first-class degrees at the University of Liverpool. Professor Alderman is clear that part of the problem is with the current obsession with rankings:
"Part of the answer lies in the league-table culture that now permeates the sector. The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league-table near rivals, and if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes, the argument is put about that "peer" institutions must do the same. The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque "bidding" game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the alter of public image - as reflected in newspaper rankings."
Similarly, it seems that in the US large numbers of students are being pushed through universities for no other reason than to improve graduation rates and therefore scores on the US News and World Report rankings.