Devaluation of the British degree

January 6, 1995

(Photograph) - British academics do not believe that degree standards are being maintained, a survey of THES readers has shown.

The self-selecting group of 1,125 people who returned last year's reader survey has to be treated with caution. But it is a large enough sample to make convincing the three to one majority believing that standards are falling.

Most readers believe that the influx of commercial funds into higher education has been beneficial. There were small margins for the propositions that all academics should do research, that quality audit and assessment are useful and against well-off students contributing to their tuition fees and the view that it is not the purpose of universities to train for jobs -- but on none of these was the margin more than 6.3 percentage points.

Readers were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements (all figures percentages, 1992 figures in parentheses): An influx of commercial funds is beneficial to universities Agree strongly 10 (9) Agree 44.3 (47.1) Neither 21.6 (19.1) Disagree 17.0 (15.3) Disagree strongly 5.7 (4.6) Agreement was strong among heads of institution (96.1), business people (82.4) and deputy heads (76), with scepticism strongest among higher education lecturers (47.2). Business and management (65.6) and science (57.3) academics were more impressed than those in the humanities (39.9).

All academic teaching staff should be required to do original research Agree strongly 16.8 (16.5) Agree 28.9 (30.9) Neither 13.5 (13.9) Disagree 31.6 (29.4) Disagree strongly 7.8 (5.6) There is an institutional effect with old university staff more likely to agree (55.3) than those in other institutions (all around 40 per cent). Humanities staff were most strongly in favour (62.4) with engineering and technology (40.5) and business and management (34.5) at the other end of the scale.

Quality audit and assessment are useful guides to progress Agree strongly 5.7 (9.3) Agree 36.2 (48.3) Neither 20.6 (18.9) Disagree 24.8 (13.2) Disagree strongly 10.8 (6.0) The relatively close outcome conceals considerable divergences in opinion. Administrators are in favour by 54.7 to 20.5 per cent while lecturers in higher education are against by 48.6 to 28.5 per cent.

Staff in old universities are against by 43 to 34.5 per cent, with margins narrowly in favour in the new universities and approaching two to one in colleges of further education and higher education.

Business and medicine are the only academic groups in favour, although science opinion is evenly divided. Those in the humanities are against by 47.7 per cent to 28.7 per cent.

It is not the purpose of a university to train people for jobs Agree strongly 14.2 (11.6) Agree 24.7 (22.1) Neither 18.5 (16.8) Disagree 30.9 (33.7) Disagree strongly 10.7 (11.6) Agreement was stronger (55.2) among FE lecturers than in higher education (40.7), while vocationalism is stronger in new universities than old. Linguists (57.1) were the most anti-vocational group with business and management (31.1) at the other end. Those aged 25 to 44 were more likely to agree than those aged 45- 64.

Degree standards are currently being maintained Agree strongly 2.0 (2.1) Agree 16.4 (25.6) Neither 22.7 (24.6) Disagree 40.9 (31.2) Disagree strongly 16.7 (12.0) Institution heads disagreed by 35 to 26 per cent. Higher education lecturers saw decline by a four to one margin -- which rose to nearly six to one (70.2:12.6) among scientists and five to one in engineering and technology and business and management. Old university staff disagreed by four to one, with ratios of more than three to one in new universities and colleges of higher education.

Students from well-off families should contribute to tuition costs Agree strongly 11.3 (9.0) Agree .4 (26.2) Neither 18.1 (18.7) Disagree 26.7 (.5) Disagree strongly 15.0 (14.5) Business people (58.8) were the occupational group most strongly in favour. Higher education lecturers rejected it by 47.2 to 37 per cent. Business and management were in favour -- 45.9 to 29.5 per cent with, medicine (42.5) social sciences (39.5) and languages (40.8) showing the highest percentage support for fees of the others and humanities the most heavily against, by 52.2 to 29.2 per cent.

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