Leader: Tightening up or dumbing down?

August 13, 2004

When is a move to improve courses an incitement to dumb down assessment standards? Answer: when academics think it is. On the face of it, Middlesex University's policy of instituting a review and demanding remedial measures when course failure rates exceed 15 per cent is admirable. Dropout rates at British universities may be low by international standards, but they still represent an unacceptable waste of students' (and academics') time, not to mention the financial and emotional costs.

A quarter of Middlesex's undergraduates were expected to leave without a degree when the last performance indicators were compiled, significantly more than the national average for the subjects on offer, given the entry standards. Although not the worst dropout rate, this was among the bottom ten for universities and obviously needed addressing. Students may abandon their course for a number of reasons, some financial and others personal, but an inability to cope academically remains the most common.

Yet the university's requirement for a full report from academics whose courses' pass rates are too low has been interpreted by many as a barely coded instruction not to fail more than 15 per cent. Only the Middlesex administration knows if this was the intention, but, even if it was not, this may be the outcome. It will be a brave course leader who consistently breaches the threshold in future. That such suspicions arise at all is a sorry commentary on the pressures of modern university life. If ministers'

and vice-chancellors' assurances that more does not mean worse are to be credible, assessment standards must be maintained. But it is naive to pretend that cash-strapped universities ignore the link between pass rates and fee income. It was brought home in stark terms at Bournemouth University when a head of school wrote of "reducing the problem to one of money" in urging his colleagues to "look for the extra 1-2 marks" for borderline failures ("Natfhe's anger at pressure to pass students", August 6).

Students have a right to expect quality teaching and appropriate levels of support, and to know that particular attention will be paid to courses where failure rates are high. But the starting point for such reviews must surely be the admissions process. Widening participation invariably involves some increase in dropout rates, but when these reach the heights seen in some parts of British higher education, institutions should ask whose interests are served by admitting the weakest candidates. Course leaders cannot take all the blame.

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