Three Appeal Court judges ruled on 24th February that Paul Buckland, a professor at Bournemouth University, who resigned in 2007 in a row over the alleged dumbing down of degrees, was treated unfairly. In essence, Professor Buckland had given fail marks to a number of students, whose papers were subsequently remarked and permitted to pass (for a detailed summary of the case, see the University and College Union News). He had complained, and subsequently resigned as a result of the university’s investigatory process. As UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “This is an important victory for everyone who values high standards and probity in our universities. Dr Buckland’s defence of academic standards and examination procedures must be congratulated. However, we are deeply concerned about the events that led to this tribunal. Staff need the confidence to be forthright and honest in their comments and assessment of work”.
This is an important and personal case, but what surprises me most about it is that few people or reports seem to have picked up on the fundamental underlying issue, which is that universities across the country have indeed been manipulating the degrees they have been awarding in recent years to give higher marks. According to the then Department for Children, Schools and Families, between 1994/5 and 2005/6 the percentage of first class and upper second class degrees in HE institutions in the UK increased from 47% of all first degrees awarded to 56%. The latest HESA figures show that this percentage had risen to 62% in 2008/9.
Universities, just like schools, are subject to league tables, and one of the criteria they are frequently judged by is the percentage of students getting good honours degrees, usually defined as upper seconds and firsts. Is it therefore surprising that universities have sought means to maximise this figure as they compete in an increasingly competitive market? Moreover, it is perfectly possible to manipulate the percentages of good degrees gained, even without any changes in the actual rigour of the marking. Typical of such ways are the following:
- changing the mechanisms for awarding degree grades by, for example, ignoring the worst 20% of marks given
- discounting the first year exam marks, when students often do worst as they get used to the university system
- reducing the amount contributed by terminal exams to the overall assessment, and increasing the amount of coursework at which most students usually do better
There is also some evidence that actual marking is becoming more lenient, as universities seek to encourage more diverse expressions and interpretations in response to assignments that are set. This was the issue that gave rise to the original disagreement at Bournemouth. Attention paid to the quality of written expression has, in many institutions, declined, and it is therefore scarcely surprising that employers regularly complain about the quality of these skills in apparently highly qualified graduates! The nature of assignments has also in many instances changed to make them easier. Typical of this is the expectation of what is required for an undergraduate research dissertation. Years ago, it was expected that students would spend most of the summer vacation between their second and third years undertaking their dissertations – and I indeed still expect a substantial amount of empirical work to be done for a dissertation to gain a good mark. However, on more than one occasion colleagues have berated me saying that this is completely unreasonable, because students have to gain paid employment over the summer to cover their fees, and that I should therefore be willing to accept what I consider to be paltry amounts of empirical work.
The situation is at least as bad in many Master’s degrees, especially where foreign students are concerned. Many universities rely heavily on the financial income derived from fees paid by foreign students. Despite the requirements imposed on such students to have high language scores as tested, for example, by the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), the reality is that many such students do not have sufficient language abilities to perform at a high level in written terminal examinations. Many Master’s degrees which in the past were assessed by terminal examinations that required a high degree of competency in academic writing in English, are now being assessed purely by course assignments, and even in some cases largely by oral presentations! As is well know, anyone who can use a word processor with grammar and spelling checkers can produce a half-competent piece of written work, even when their ability to do so without such support is very much less! The assessment requirements are less challenging, and therefore the pass rates remain high. Universities are too desperate for the fees that such students bring in that they cannot be seen to be failing large numbers of them; the assessment system therefore has to change to accommodate the financial realities.
To make matters even worse, this percentage increase in ‘good degrees’ is taking place at a time when many universities have reduced the amount of time academic staff actually spend teaching students so that they are able instead to concentrate on research. Across the country, class sizes have gone up, there are fewer and fewer personal or group tutorials, and undergraduates have less and less contact with academics!
This is of course not to deny that many students work incredibly hard, and get the good degrees that they deserve. However, it is to claim that university degrees taken as a whole have seen very considerable dumbing down in recent years. There is nothing extraordinary or surprising about this. Universities do have some clever people working for them, and in a competitive market place where they are being judged in part on the number of ‘good degrees’ that they award, some of them are bound to find ways of manipulating the system! There is nothing new in this.