Academia has sold out, 72% believe

October 27, 2006

'Bums on seats' wins out over 'speaking truth to power', reports Phil Baty

Higher education is "selling its soul" as managerialism, regulation and the drive to get "bums on seats" replace the wider human good of academe, according to explosive new research.

The study, launched next week, says that 72 per cent of academics think higher education has lost its role as the "conscience and critic of society". Some 85 per cent agreed that the "humanity and excitement" have been lost, while 77 per cent said the "joy of learning" once associated with higher education has been lost to targets and performance measures.

Almost 80 per cent agreed that academic freedom ("speaking truth to power") was being sacrificed to a culture of "bully and blame".

The survey targeted members of the Higher Education Academy's Learning and Teaching Subject Networks through their e-mail lists and included almost 300 responses. It reveals the extent to which lecturers believe that academic standards have been "dumbed down", with weaker students getting university places, pass rates being lowered and student malpractice condoned.

It raises serious doubts about the political emphasis on the economic benefits of undergraduate study and academic research as well as questioning the amount of money being invested in higher education expansion.

Boris Johnson, Shadow Higher Education Minister, said: "I'm not convinced that you can measure the value of higher education. It is a good in itself, an end in itself."

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Universities where staff have the right to challenge orthodoxies without penalty and where students are taught to analyse rather than simply prepare for the job market are the bedrock of a democratic society."

The work is to be published as a monograph, Higher Education and the Human Good , edited by Ian McNay, emeritus professor at Greenwich University, and Jennifer Bone, former pro vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England.

The research was inspired in part by a Times Higher survey in November 2004, which found that almost half of staff had felt obliged to pass failing students' work and almost a fifth turned "a blind eye" to student plagiarism.

The survey found:

  • 43 per cent disagreed that "the gains from the growth of higher education outweighed the losses" while only per cent agreed.
  • 86.4 per cent of academics agreed that "funding pressures led to admission of weaker students" without adequate resources to support them
  • 73 per cent of academics agreed that there was a risk that students had to be supported so much that "it becomes spoon-feeding"
  • 75 per cent agreed that pass/fail decisions were "being pushed towards lenience to keep pass rates higher"
  • Half agreed that academic malpractice that had been considered unacceptable was now condoned
  • One academic admitted passing students to avoid having to give individual feedback and support if they failed. Another alleged that marks at their institution had been declared before the papers were marked.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "The response from this self-selecting survey reads a bit like 'Stop the world, I want to get off'.

Investment in higher education is now increasing whereas previously, for a generation, it had decreased. Higher education is still a critic of society and rightly so."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk  

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