Debate grows on academic rigour of degrees

The argument that students are not being stretched elicits heated replies. Donna Bowater reports

August 28, 2008

"Our degrees are no longer in any sense a serious test of knowledge, intelligence or critical ability."

When Kevin Sharpe, a professor at Queen Mary, University of London, made this claim in an article in Times Higher Education in July, he undoubtedly expected a strong reaction.

He said that the dramatic increase in the number and proportion of first and upper second-class honours being awarded was not because tutors are being pushed to be more generous in their marking to improve league-table positions, but because the rise of modular degree courses had made them too easy to pass.

"The demise of final exams and shift to a modular system have changed not just how we assess but what we require for a degree. For without traditional examinations, and with the modular system, students rightly see little need to think outside the particular exercise or to relate this problem or subject to one they tackled last semester," Professor Sharpe said. The article prompted national newspaper headlines and agonised internet debates.

One poster to the Times Higher Education website even called for an end to university autonomy and the imposition of national exams for university degrees. And a straw poll of Times Higher Education readers on the issue this week suggests that the debate will continue to rage as the academic community remains deeply polarised.

Andrew Blake, associate dean in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London, agreed in part with Professor Sharpe. He said: "The end of the linear degree means that students are no longer asked to become, in effect, junior members of an academic discipline, and are therefore tested in different, and arguably less intellectually demanding, ways.

"I was seen by my tutors not as a potential banker, estate agent or mobile-phone software developer who happened to be reading history, but as an apprentice historian who might possibly use the fruits of my apprenticeship in academia, the media or public service."

However, others believed Sharpe's arguments were too general and based on academic trends long since gone from UK universities.

Nicola Andrew, senior lecturer in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Community Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "We live in a very different world from that of the postwar-to-1970s era. Knowledge, by necessity, has evolved to embrace an applied level, in forms such as work-related learning, not historically valued or deemed as appropriate within the university sector."

Bob Brecher, director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics at the University of Brighton, expanded on Professor Sharpe's argument, presenting changing academic principles as symptomatic of policies to widen participation and serve a mass desire for information rather than knowledge.

Dr Brecher said: "An insistence on critical intelligence, rigorous argument and the like - the basic necessities of any higher education - are increasingly being jettisoned. There are many reasons for this, but it's neoliberal politics that are fundamental.

"Until the entire academic profession gets off its collective backside and insists on not shortchanging students, on not 'giving them what they want, whatever it is', but rather on teaching them to want the right things, the neoliberals will win. More than ever, higher education is political."

- Kevin Sharpe continues his examination of degree standards on page 24 of this issue of Times Higher Education. "We have many more PhDs, but many a doctoral thesis falls far short of what we might expect and no longer constitutes a reliable qualification for academia," he argues. "This has serious implications for our international standing and the opportunities for our PhD students."

'WE ALL WANT THE SAME THING - CHALLENGING, RIGOROUS AND SATISFYING HIGHER EDUCATION': READERS SPEAK OUT ON STANDARDS

Times Higher Education asked readers if they agreed that "our degrees have profoundly changed and are no longer in any sense a serious test of knowledge, intelligence or critical ability". Here is a selection of responses:

"I believe the claim is much too general to be true. Moreover, it is not clear why we should not take an increase in firsts and 2:1s to indicate anything other than a rise in teaching excellence. Professor Sharpe's claim is arguably unfalsifiable."

Constantine Sandis, lecturer in philosophy, Oxford Brookes University

"If UK academe supports quality degree programmes, then it needs to offer leadership. Excellence. Innovation. Creativity. Knowledge. These have become highly politicised words. What they mean in higher education is up to us. Are we leading? Not at the moment. Too much following and too little leading is UK academe's problem, and unless this changes we are in danger of not being world class."

Graeme Harper, director of research, College of Arts and Humanities, Bangor University

"Higher education was once supposed to be academic in the true sense of the word - now it is about employment. However, the demands of employment and the traditions of academia do not naturally align, meaning something has to give somewhere. For me, and this is where I do strongly differ with Kevin, the real problem is the marketisation of education at all levels that is expecting academics to be jacks-of-all-trades."

Vivienne Brunsden, senior lecturer in psychology, Nottingham Trent University

"We like to believe in a once-existing golden age. The major shift in undergraduate education since I was a student (mid-1970s) is the move to the modular structure and the associated growth in combined, and modular, honours programmes. However, the extent to which modular degrees have fragmented knowledge can be overstated. There is no reason why 'knowledge, intelligence or critical ability' can only be delivered or stimulated through one particular structure of teaching."

Alan White, director of the graduate school, University of East London

"Degrees have changed and no longer assess what they used to. The Burgess Committee (on recording student achievement) missed a chance to recognise this by not replacing the Platonic hierarchy of first, second and third-class minds with grades. What is happening across education and training is part of the tendency towards deskilling and what can perhaps only be called 'stupification' as new technology has been applied to outsource and fragment, first, skilled manual labour and, now, increasingly non-manual 'professional' employment."

Patrick Ainley, professor of training and education, School of Education and Training, University of Greenwich

"Like any other qualification, the real test of the value of a degree is outside the university and in the wider world, together with its value to the student."

Stephen Badsey, reader in conflict studies, University of Wolverhampton

"In my own university, exams have recently been abolished. This, coupled with a system that awards degree classifications based solely on third-year work and a Total Quality Management-fuelled drive to ensure that all assignments are assessed via microscopically detailed 'learning outcomes', has led to a situation where many students appear to have lost sight of the bigger picture of why they are at university."

Jeremy Woods, senior lecturer in marketing communications, University of the Arts London

"I don't think many of the skills that students acquired in the past were helpful for the world of work: they were predominantly designed to help them do what I did, which was to follow a path of academic research. How many of my fellow students really 'looked and thought again' and drew everything together, constructing a synthesis of the discipline. Degree programmes are no longer what they were; they have evolved: no longer fit for purpose or survival of the fittest?"

Jon Scott, director of biological sciences, University of Leicester

"A large part of the present problem stems from the Government's illogical determination to ensure that 50 per cent of 18 year olds go to university. By definition, a university education for 50 per cent of the population cannot be the same as a university education for the brightest 5, 10, 15 or even 25 or 30 per cent. The social engineering goal behind this appears to be to achieve equal outcomes for 50 per cent of the population almost regardless of their innate ability, application, work or even attendance."

Christopher Cook, head of accounting, finance and information sciences, University of Northampton

"This statement sounds remarkably like the easy 'things were better in my day ...' and is far too sweeping and simplistic. I agree that the system constrains critical thinking and originality, but think we've changed rather than lowered the bars. Presumably we all want the same thing - challenging, rigorous and satisfying higher education systems, so let's continue the debate."

Roger Cowell, knowledge broker, Centre for Innovation in Health Management, University of Leeds

"Academia provides no incentive to engage in the relevant sort of curricular integration. Everything is so research-driven that teaching is relegated to the status of a necessary evil to balance the university's books. Modular courses with trivial requirements are the path of least resistance. If universities significantly rewarded people interested in dedicating themselves to Sharpe's deeper sense of education, then it would happen - and there would be many takers."

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology, University of Warwick

- For a chance to join the debate and participate in our online survey on standards, visit www.timeshighereducation.co.uk.

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