A national syllabus to compare standards

August 13, 2009

The aspect of the Students and Universities report that has attracted the most media attention is the significance of degree levels ("After the grillings, MPs serve a critical dish to the sector", 6 August).

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee asked obvious questions about the comparability of degrees between different universities. In light of the experts' responses, its report concludes: "We found these answers unclear." Having read the answers, I'm not surprised.

The committee declared itself frustrated in its "attempt to establish whether the outcomes of degrees were comparable across the sector" and noted that universities seem unwilling to "establish a consistent set of standards". The MPs are spot on.

University authorities make statements that confuse, perhaps deliberately, academic and institutional freedom. I am in favour of the former, but doubtful about the value of the latter. With the much wider ability range of students today, it is too vague to say that so-and-so got a "2:1 in physics from University X in 2006".

I can think of a more objective model. In France, the CAPES and Agregation postgraduate qualifications depend on national examinations, the syllabus of which is published one year in advance. These are high-level exams that cover all the main subjects. Candidates are judged by the same criteria. I can see a way of using this concept for undergraduate degrees in the UK.

Here is my suggestion. To maintain academic freedom, universities could teach what and how they liked for three years to decide, inter alia, whether a student should continue with the course. They could award an internal qualification, if they wished.

Then, at the end of the third year, the national syllabus for each subject would be published and students would take the exam at the end of their fourth year.

This would provide a basis for national comparison for any given year. It may be crude, but it would give a clearer idea of a student's level of ability than current arrangements do. And as there would be no guarantee that anything learnt in the first three years would be on the final syllabus, it might promote the idea of learning for learning's sake, too.

Michael Bulley, Chalon-sur-Saone, France.

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