Guest leader: The real sting of the QAA whip

Attacks on the grading system will not improve standards but will harm the UK's reputation, claims Malcolm Grant

September 11, 2008

Self-flagellation has become too commonplace for my liking. It played a major part in the religious fiction of the Da Vinci Code, and a rather more vivid picture is conjured up by Max Mosley, who has developed a Formula One version of the ritual that apparently requires a team of assistants willing to devote no less than five hours to the task, followed by a nice cup of tea.

It is that last touch that is so splendidly British. This is because when the British self-flagellate they invariably do it by words rather than action. By comparison with the physical rites of other liturgies, Anglicanism as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer is restrained: it is strictly limited to the confession of sins and the declaration of personal unworthiness. This fits well with the British character because the main thing to understand about British critical self-flagellation is that we really do not mean it.

It is important to bear this in mind when considering the recent flurry of self-flagellatory dementia in academe. If we move on from the inaugural lecture of the University of Buckingham's Geoffrey Alderman, in which he cast a few badly aimed whiplashes at the university body corporate, the real punishment was initiated by Peter Williams, CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency. He announced that our degree classification systems were "arbitrary and unreliable"; that our grading system was "rotten"; and that there was a belief from some overseas students that if they simply paid their fees they would get a degree.

No wonder this has surprised academics and their administrative colleagues who spend days every year assessing exam scripts and participating in exam boards in grading candidates by the standards of their institutions. No doubt the QAA believes this to be a helpful contribution to a debate about standards. And no doubt its CEO was equally serious when he accused others of "wishing to badmouth the work of our universities and colleges". Perhaps the QAA believes this is its exclusive preserve.

It is not surprising that this should have attracted the attention of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee. Its chairman, Phil Willis, was reported as having said that our degree classification system was "descending into farce". But to be fair that isn't what he meant. He was concerned that the QAA, although insisting that universities should be able to identify the criteria by which they awarded firsts, had never conducted rigorous research to assess whether there was a discrepancy in attainment between graduates from different institutions; and he was concerned that the QAA line suggested that the public was unable to distinguish between a first from Oxford and one from Uttoxeter. More important, Williams was pressed into disclosing that grade inflation was not a general trend. In only one of the university groups - and it wasn't the Russell Group - had there been any major increase over the past five years. All others remained static.

But these subtleties and differentiations are difficult to convey to an international audience. The message has gone out - not that the UK is having a debate about how to drive up its standards further, but that the UK degree classification system is rotten and overseas students think they can buy our degrees.

We may, as good British self-flagellators, not truly mean any of it. We know that the relative autonomy enjoyed by UK institutions to promote the highest internal standards is a vital component of our success. But this row has shown recklessness with the international reputation of our sector and risked long-term harm to our competitiveness. UK universities need to ensure that the world is aware of the steps we take to improve quality while remaining a diverse and lively sector.

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