Agony aunt

November 27, 1998

Q One of my third-year undergraduates looks certain to fail his degree. The problem is his father is one of the university's most important benefactors. How can I avoid impending disaster?

Geoffrey Alderman Head of quality assurance Middlesex University

A You talk of disaster. I talk of opportunity. What exactly do you mean by fail? If you mean fail to get an honours degree, would he be likely to obtain a pass-without-honours? If you mean fail the degree for which he is registered, then register him for an alternative award which he might pass. I would strongly recommend a sandwich award, based on a cultural placement: put him in one of daddy's overseas companies and get the local MD to write a fulsome report, which you can then credit-rate.

To satisfy the Quality Assurance Agency, the placement would have to be visited, which would provide opportunities for you and your colleagues to engage in international staff development. If he looks likely only to fail his third-year work, you can offer him a diploma (based on two years' work), to be topped up through the accreditation of what is termed "post-award uncertificated learning'" - you award him the degree automatically a few terms after he ends his formal studies and on payment of an arrangement fee.

An alternative would be to award him and daddy honorary degrees at the same ceremony - a UK first, which your PR people would worship you for. If the QAA looks like cutting up rough, your student's honorary degree could always be classified. You talk of disaster. I talk of opportunity.

John Ashworth Former director London School of Economics

A Ask him to retake the year, just what you might do for any student. If he looks like failing again, then we have to move to another art. Do not push him through. The benefactor would not give money to an institution that does not stand by its own standards, that would be nutty. He gives because he thinks the place is good so do not demonstrate otherwise. The solution would be a quiet call to the benefactor. Suggest he organises, on behalf of his son, appropriate private study arrangements.

Piers Benn Lecturer in philosophy Leeds University

A In the 1980s, Andrew Davies's cult television series, A Very Peculiar Practice, prophetically created Lowlands University as a comic place of paranoid intrigue and donnish foul play. An evil American genius replaces the vice-chancellor. Departments close, heads roll. But one complacently unproductive academic is granted a stay of execution: there is a rich kid in his department, and the prospect of an endowment. "Wait till the rich kid graduates", says the v-c, "then let the asshole go".

These scenarios are not implausible. However, this week's moral quandary is worse. To give someone an undeservedly high mark is indulgence; to do so in order not to lose an endowment scandalous. So we might hope that the scenario presents false alternatives. If we are sure the finalist will fail we should warn and help him. A university has an obligation to bring out the best, even in students it should not have admitted.

That raises the matter of why the failure-bound undergraduate was admitted and whether rules were bent. If he will not pass, the pill can be sugared.

The underlying ethical question is that of what is being paid for when we pay for education. And the answer must be: the chance of a degree. It cannot be the degree itself.

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