Alison Wolf

May 13, 2005

While exams are intended to bring out the best in students, perhaps they also bring out the worst in audit culture

The election campaign was generally seen as dull, with few voters really engaged. Maybe it was the lack of suspense; maybe a lack of choice. But I think something else was at work. In May, a growing percentage of the population has something else on its mind.

Forget maypoles and trashing your nearest McDonald's. What May Day really marks is the start of the examination season. There can hardly be an undergraduate in the land who isn't facing examinations, coursework deadlines or both. Rising participation rates mean more and more teenagers taking not just GCSEs but A levels as well. So millions of people are worrying about examinations; millions of parents are worrying about their children; and millions of grandparents are worrying both about their grandchildren and about whether the grandchildren's parents are doing enough. The Government wants just about everything in further education to be "award-bearing", and masters degrees are booming. So it can only get worse.

And then there are the examiners. Our May is overshadowed by the imminent arrival of scripts and mark lists, of papers bearing non-existent student numbers, students whose registration details are wrong, students whose mobiles go off in the exam hall, whose work is late, whose mother is ill, whose dog is ill, who are having the panic attack you would quite like to have yourself. It adds up to a large part of the electorate with its mind on other things.

Exam fever is not particularly British. All over the world, high-stakes exams dominate more and more people's lives. We have an unusually high number of centrally run school examinations, but I am not sure that our children are tested more than most. There is certainly nothing unusual in the exam burden placed on British university students, but two things strike me.

The first is how extraordinarily hard it is to monitor standards in universities. The second is how little, around the world, people seem to care.

British universities have an unusually elaborate system of examination monitoring, with external examiners, layers of boards, volumes of regulations and complex appeals procedures. In the days before the Quality Assurance Agency, the Higher Education Quality Council had a whole programme of research on standards. It showed that exam boards spent their time on individual cases rather than overall standards; that the old close-knit course teams were disintegrating in a world of modules and options; and that external examiners couldn't possibly maintain consistent standards across a sector that had grown tenfold in 50 years.

The HEQC didn't come up with any solutions; and the QAA has in practice simply ignored the issue. Instead it dictates audit-friendly paper trails that tell you all about procedure and nothing about content and standards.

These are largely pointless but perfectly "deliverable". You can monitor school standards because pupils study the same syllabus using similar textbooks. In universities, degrees with the same name share almost no common content. Subject matter changes constantly. Courses reflect people's current research so, often, only the lecturer can really tell whether a student's performance is good, bad or indifferent.

Much of the world (including the US) lives quite happily with a system in which lecturers are judge and jury, teaching and marking with no outside oversight at all. Oral examinations, which cannot be standardised, are still quite common in mainland Europe. French researchers found that the higher the average baccalaureate scores of the entering students, the higher the average failure rate on a university's exams, and no one really cared. It simply indicated that popular places also had high standards.

I used to be shocked by this indifference to monitoring and standardisation. Now I am not so sure. It saves a lot of time and money, and in most countries the general public just accept that degree results are not precise. US employers virtually never look at college transcripts.

In Italy, you get a mark out of 100 when you graduate, but it is not put on your degree certificate.

Here, the myth of common standards mostly benefits journalists constructing university league tables. The latest idea for these is value-added: your university adds more value if your students get more firsts and upper seconds than their A-level scores predict. This statistic is constructed and reported in all seriousness by people who must mostly be graduates: which says a lot, mostly depressing, about what we teach our students but nothing about university standards. The sector should stop laying claim to a uniformity and precision we cannot and do not wish to deliver.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.

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