A first-class fiasco

Frank Furedi says the reason the degree classification system is broken is too little autonomy, not too much

July 31, 2008

It is difficult to determine whether the word hypocrisy or inanity best describes the hearings of the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills on the value of university degrees.

Phil Willis, chair of the committee, felt called upon to state the obvious, which is that the value of university degrees is "descending into farce". He was echoing concerns raised by Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, who reported that the degree classification system is "arbitrary and unreliable".

What neither Willis nor Williams was prepared to acknowledge is the responsibility of politicians and policymakers for this lamentable state of affairs. Grade inflation and the creative orientation towards issuing very nice degrees is the inexorable consequence of policies promoted by governments since the mid-Nineties. For more than a decade they have lectured academics about the need to accommodate a new student-centred reality.

The ethos that defines students as customers has spawned policy initiatives that celebrate the students' experience and insist that universities should be judged according to the student satisfaction score they achieve in the league tables. Since nothing pleases students as much as high marks and a good degree, many universities have felt compelled to bend over backwards to keep their customers happy. In the name of student satisfaction, departments that seek to maintain standards often face pressure to adopt a more "progressive" style of grading. The new modes of assessment that have been introduced have worked to facilitate grade inflation.

Universities are also warned that they must widen participation and ensure high retention rates. The implicit message is that students should be retained for the duration of their course at all costs. In such circumstances, failing students is represented as bad practice. Some of the new breed of widening-participation zealots claim that it is not students who fail but lecturers who fail their students. If failure becomes a scandal that must be rendered invisible it is only a matter of time before low degrees will have to be managed out of existence. That is why in some places the 2:2 has become the new pass degree.

External quality assurance auditing agencies have been complicit in the promotion of degree inflation. I remember an inspector in 1995 reprimanding me for not giving a first to any students. He gave me a menacing smile and advised "try harder next year".

It is perverse that members of the parliamentary subcommittee blame university autonomy for the arbitrary character of the degree classification system. In fact, the cause of the problem is the steady erosion of university autonomy over the past two decades.

The demand "try harder next year" did not emerge from the academy. There is no obvious reason why academics should of their own accord set about inflating grades and devaluing degrees. It was the cumulative effect of external pressure that undermined the confidence of many universities to maintain their standards. This problem did not exist before the expansion of quality assurance and the institutionalisation of external auditing. The crisis afflicting the degree is intimately linked to the internalisation of the managerial culture.

Official critics of the degree classification system get almost everything wrong. They blame not only autonomy but also overseas students for the current predicament. Williams claims that "there is a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they will get a degree". Just "some overseas students"? What about those from this island? And who is responsible for encouraging that belief? Surely not the peddlers of the idea that a student is a customer?

On one point the Select Committee's instincts are right. University autonomy has the potential for encouraging distinct pedagogical and academic cultures. Consequently, the degrees they award will never be exactly comparable. That may be inconvenient to managers wedded to the McDonaldisation of education, but not those who understand the merits of a pluralistic academic environment.

If politicians are interested in the rehabilitation of the degree classification system they should loosen up the highly centralised higher education regime that is eroding university autonomy.

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