THE Scholarly Web - 26 June 2014

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 26, 2014

The University of Cambridge has finally bowed to the inevitable and closed its doors to new undergraduates.

At least, it will do in 2050. That is, if you believe the predictions made by Michael Wood, visiting fellow at Portsmouth Business School, in a post on his The Sceptical Academic blog.

Dr Wood explains that he is “lucky enough to have a friend who has solved the knotty problem of travelling backwards through time”, adding that she has sent him a news report from the Mumbai-based World News, dated 1 January 2050. It is on this report that the blog is based.

“For the last two years Cambridge has been the only university in the world offering degree courses,” the report says. “This new move brings to an end an era which has lasted for centuries.”

According to the futuristic report, it was around 2010 when degrees began to lose their reliability for proving the bearer’s competence, knowledge or expertise. Until then, “doctors and engineers with degrees were considered safe” to practise and “even degrees in disciplines without any obviously useful knowledge at their core, such as English Literature, or Golf Studies, were treated as valid, and marketable, evidence of general competence”.

Then things changed, the report reveals. “Now the idea that a university degree is evidence of any kind of competence is frankly as quaint and old-fashioned as the idea that serious sport could be drug free.”

So where did it all go wrong for the traditional university undergraduate degree? Well, according to World News, there were a number of reasons. First, “many really successful people did not have university degrees – they either never went or dropped out”, meaning people began to question whether they needed one. Second, “the stuff taught in degree courses was becoming increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant”.

However, the thing that “lit the fuse that destroyed degree courses” was, the 2050 report continues, an “obsession with detecting and punishing ‘plagiarism’ ”, resulting in the development of rules to prevent, and software to detect, the crime.

Apparently, from a 2050 perspective, this is a very unusual approach. “Culture depends on copying, maintaining clear links to individual ownership of intellectual property is often difficult, and is now generally agreed to hinder progress,” the report says.

The “obsession” with plagiarism led to two big problems, it continues. “First, more and more assessments were designed primarily to prevent cheating”, meaning that instead of a “sensible piece of work which students could have completed with any relevant technological aids”, the focus was on exams “where technological aids, even books and notes, were banned”.

The second problem was a plagiarism detection “arms race”, with “progressively more sophisticated methods and software both on the university and on the student side”. “Many students treated it as a game which the brightest did very well at,” the report says.

It seems that the final nail for degrees came when students’ CVs started to contain two things: a certificate from their university declaring that they had succeeded in their studies without plagiarising, and evidence to prove they had, in fact, cheated but were smart enough not to get found out.

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