Unpalatable truths

January 24, 2008

The university exam system faces real problems. Academics are forced to mark too much too quickly. Coursework is contaminated with plagiarism. Fine-grain discrimination is impossible and mistakes are inevitable. This is unfair on students and staff.

The Burgess group report is fundamentally flawed because it addresses none of those problems. Its prescriptions would make them worse. Furthermore, it conflates two separate issues (grade inflation and the degree classification system) and ignores the trade-off between the nicety of discriminations and their validity.

The expression "not fit for purpose" is meaningless without rigorous specification of "the purpose" of awarding degrees. The report implies that this is to allow employers to make fine discriminations between applicants for specific jobs. Vast resources would be wasted in this illusory enterprise. The additional data Burgess wishes academics to disclose are the most statistically noisy and contaminated of the lot. Inter-subject or inter-institutional comparisons would be impossible. Students would be misled and employers would not be fooled for long.

Changing the classification metric cannot affect grade inflation. Thoughtful academics know that the inflationary pressures come from above (university "managers" and the Government) and below (students desperate to recoup the government-imposed cost of their degrees). Relieving those pressures will be costly.

Vice-chancellors and the Government will need to confront some unpalatable truths before the system can be restored, let alone improved. Imposing more burdens on academics is counter-productive.

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