2006 degrees will be 'suspect'

May 19, 2006

Unions say that universities, by digging in their heels over pay, are tainting graduates' qualifications and undermining academic values. Phil Baty reports

Degrees held by 2006 graduates "will for ever be suspect", said Gillian Howie, a senior lecturer at Liverpool University's philosophy department.

Presenting an emergency motion at the Association of University Teachers annual conference last week, Dr Howie warned that the contingency plans being put in place by vice-chancellors to get round the union's boycott of student exams and assessment showed "contempt for academic standards".

Instead of settling the industrial dispute with an offer that seriously addresses their pay demands, university managers were "cobbling together papers, basing final marks on second-year averages, getting casual labour and non-specialists to mark papers, allowing students to progress and graduate without sitting final-year papers", said Dr Howie, a member of the AUT's national executive.

"Universities are risking the integrity of degree programmes, and they are undermining core academic values," she said.

"Doctors, teachers, engineers will be graduating without sitting final-year papers - some without their core competences. You'll go to the doctor and ask: 'Which year did you graduate?'

"Your doctor could turn round and say: 'No, sorry, I don't do ears - that was a third-year paper.'"

Dr Howie's motion was passed unanimously by the union. It expressed the AUT's "profound concern at the panic measures being taken by many institutions to bypass the normal processes and regulations designed to guarantee the quality of their degrees and other awards".

Dr Howie's gibe about patients having to ask in which year their doctor graduated is not just a glib exaggeration of the situation, according to her colleague, Andrea Litva, a lecturer in medical sociology at Liverpool's faculty of medicine.

Dr Litva, who teaches non-clinical skills such as ethics and communication to medical students, told The Times Higher that she and "about ten" of her colleagues in the faculty of medicine were refusing to take part in the setting and marking of exams.

As a result, she said, these medical students were sitting exams in ethics and communication that were "cobbled together" by people who lacked the necessary expertise and that would be marked by clinicians who lacked the understanding of this aspect of a medical student's education.

A Liverpool spokeswoman said that ethical and communications issues were "fundamental" to medical studies, and were taught and assessed in various ways throughout the course.

She said that postponed exams would not apply to final-year students, who would have already completed this aspect of their training.

The AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe - which, unlike the AUT, is setting exams but refusing to mark them - said that similar problems were being experienced around the country and across disciplines.

Lecturers at the Norwich Law School are so concerned about the quality implications of plans to draft in solicitors to mark exam papers that they have abandoned their marking boycott and have agreed to carry out the work themselves to protect students.

Universities' plans to allow students to progress or graduate without completing the full course requirements, if their exams are cancelled, have also sparked protests.

Lecturers have publicly accused Keele and Newcastle universities, which plan to allow graduations despite cancelled exams, of abandoning rigorous academic standards.

Last week, The Times Higher reported that Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, had warned universities not to put academic standards "in peril" in their rush to counteract the unions' actions.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society told The Times Higher that it had written to all universities running MPharm degree courses telling them that students must be assessed as agreed through the accreditation process. If this is not done, the society said graduates might not be eligible to join compulsory postgraduate training for pharmacists.

Stephen Boffey, vice-president for education and training at the Institute of Biology and dean of interdisciplinary studies at Hertfordshire University, said: "A UK degree is much more than just a piece of paper. The world depends on universities and bodies such as ours to deliver a top-quality product."

A spokesman for the vice-chancellor's umbrella body, Universities UK, said:

"We strongly reject any suggestion that some universities will be awarding substandard degrees as a result of the dispute. The quality and integrity of students' qualifications and degree results is paramount.

"The aim of these contingency plans is, of course, to ensure that as far as possible students will not be disadvantaged by this dispute."

He said that UUK and its members were looking at practical measures to minimise disruption to students and to ensure that academic standards were maintained.


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