Critics miss the marks

Carping about universities often overlooks the positive and the constant efforts we make to improve, says Rick Trainor

July 3, 2008

It has been open season on universities over the past few weeks – university standards were the subject of the most recent attack. This is not surprising. We have much vested in our universities, individually and collectively. They matter, so it is understandable that commentators are concerned about whether our reputation for high quality is justified and can be maintained.

There have been two particular concerns. The first is that university degrees are being dumbed down. The second is that substandard international students are being admitted to universities because they provide more income to institutions than do home and European Union students.

Let’s start with the dumbing-down accusation. There are almost 2.5 million students in the system. Capturing their achievements across a wide range of subjects in a way that will be broadly comparable and easily understood has become increasingly challenging. The current degree-classification system is under review after a report last year recommended a new way of recording students’ achievements.

This system, which the report recommended be introduced in 2010-11, would take the form of a “higher education achievement report” (HEAR). This comprehensive record would give students the best of both worlds – details about their perform­ance in the various components of their course alongside a degree classification.

The second concern this week has assumed that universities treat international students differently and accept lower standards because they pay higher fees. These students are certainly valued highly by universities – because of the academic and cultural benefits they bring, in addition to the financial benefit. In science and technology subjects, our international students go on to obtain advanced degrees that our universities need to deliver high-quality teaching and research. International students both benefit from and contribute enormously to the UK higher education experience. And as far as finances are concerned, when the English student fee and the block grant contribution universities receive are added together, the sum is similar to that asked of an international student doing the same course.

The standards argument doesn’t stack up either. The UK has a more diverse international student base than most countries. Seventy-eight UK higher education institutions have students from 100 or more countries – this diversity of language, cultural and education background means universities may need to provide initial support such as language training and special pastoral care. Although some individuals may not achieve the language levels needed, the overwhelming majority have demonstrated adequate language skills through stringent international tests.

International students come in such numbers because they are attracted by our quality, innovative degree programmes, professional support services and high completion rates. As a former international student in the UK, I count myself among that number.

Ironically, last week’s stories about criticisms of the sector, made by the Quality Assurance Agency, the sector’s quality watchdog, should be reassuring. Its reports have shown that we have a system to spot potential problems – and they have drawn attention to strengths in a way that allows all universities to learn from each other’s experiences. Indeed, QAA reports cite overwhelming evidence that institutions’ external examining arrangements work well.

It may not be comfortable for the institutions being scrutinised, but the QAA does an important job by providing a robust mechanism to ensure public confidence, based on evidence.

What the flurry of media attention last week did not highlight – inevitably – was the huge number of positive comments made by the QAA. Where weaknesses were identified, they related to “a small number” or “a few” universities, and the QAA reports note that, almost without exception, universities were responding to the criticisms. As a head of institution, I welcome these reports and take their comments seriously, as do my colleagues across the sector. We have no intention of risking the loss of our universities’ world-class status.

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