Degrees of freedom

November 13, 2008

May I offer a little hope to Frank Burnet ("Pick'n'mix not so sweet", 6 November)? The University of Warwick allows students to study outside normal credit loads.

Students who study in my department (statistics), mostly on the degree MORSE (Mathematics, operational research, statistics and economics), do pick and mix. The degree requires students to work in two faculties (science and social science). A good number of students study European languages, including Chinese students.

Students in the faculty of science have for many years enjoyed the opportunity to broaden their degrees. This led the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to comment that students in other faculties did not have the same freedom. The initial response of university bureaucrats was to try to stop science being flexible. Fortunately, we managed to fight off that attempt.

Next academic year, I hope to offer arts students a small module on how to lie with statistics - and how to spot liars. Perhaps readers know the aphorism "fools, damned fools and innumerates"?

However, we have a continuing battle to maintain our excellence in the face of the QAA's desire to reduce everything to uniformity. Such people try to insist that there should be no difference between first-class degrees in physics and English. As a statistician, I know that you cannot count everything. Others claim that marks of 43 per cent or 87 per cent in an exam have identical meaning for Mechanics I and Milton III.

Jane Hutton, University of Warwick.

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