Scholars are failing the integrity test 1

September 24, 2009

Two recent pieces in Times Higher Education struck me as shocking and pathetic. Richard Austen-Baker's determination to blame school teachers and educationists for the weaknesses of teaching in UK universities is disturbing, but easily brushed aside since his belief that educational research deals only with childhood learning is clearly a product of the failure to perform even a cursory literature review before tilting at the windmills of his imagination ("Two meanings of teaching", 10 September).

Tim Birkhead's exercise in buck-passing is far more worrying because serious people might take him seriously ("Superficiality breeds contempt", 10 September). His apologia for the need to move away from facts and content to helping students to think "in a critical and scholarly way" falls flat on its face.

Birkhead seems to think that there is a huge academic and moral problem posed by students falsifying undergraduate research results, but none in his admission that scholars are routinely falsifying student-performance results. I would have thought that students could at least claim that a moral difference exists, inasmuch as they might expect guidance on research and academic ethics from their teachers. Of course, the problem is that teachers, apparently, share a misunderstanding of academic integrity or, worse still, understand the notion but lack the guts to apply it.

There seems to be some idea that academic staff do not control admissions nor determine the final assessment of their students. To borrow (and then alter) a line from Karl Llewellyn, the American law professor: "Inasmuch as students are admitted without the wherewithal to achieve, and yet pass with a sound 2:1, academics can be said to fail the academic-integrity test."

Teacher-training courses do not provide an understanding of research ethics and academic rigour if they haven't been considered in the compressed, content-heavy, undergraduate courses offered to the graduates who make up most of their student body. Work on such courses will equip such graduates with a sound understanding of the key principles of assessment: that it should be fair, reliable and valid.

Inevitably, that training will not have come the way of the majority of university teachers because the tradition, until very recently, was that such staff were sufficiently prepared for teaching duties by reasonably high academic achievement within their own disciplines. Finding Birkhead's cadre of "skilled, respected teachers (who are also researchers)" to mentor new lecturers among the alleged ranks of the predominantly pedagogically disenchanted will be a tall order.

Attempting to shift the blame for feckless admission, teaching and assessment on to schools or the national curriculum really is pathetic. However, a more worrying question remains. If academics are too frightened to refuse places to the academically unable and go on to falsify their results, how will their integrity and courage stand up in the face of the real indicators of potential success and advancement: research? I wonder, was Birkhead's article really a well-disguised call for a Quality Assurance Agency for British research?

Andrew Morgan, Swansea.

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