'Excellent' grades questioned

April 14, 2000

Huge variations in teaching quality between different subject areas are revealed in an analysis by The THES. The proportion of departments gaining "excellent" ratings varies from zero in some subject areas to 100 per cent in others, fuelling increasing concern that the whole exercise is flawed.

Analysis of the 410 departmental subject reviews published by the Quality Assurance Agency since January 1999 also reveals that more than half of all university departments are being judged excellent, increasing fears that the exercise is blighted by grade inflation.

The THES found that in the 31 subject areas reviewed since January 1999, excellence, according to the QAA, is very widespread in psychology, physics and astronomy and pharmacology and pharmacy. Although based on a small sample, there was 100 per cent excellence in American studies.

In contrast, excellent ratings are much rarer in nursing, communications and media studies, and dance, drama and cinematics.

The QAA gives each university department a grade out of four in each of six aspects of provision, giving an aggregated score out of 24. Scores of 22 or more out of 24 are commonly deemed to be excellent. The THES analysis covers a total of 2,460 grades given in 410 reports.

Of the 43 psychology departments inspected in the last year, 72 per cent were deemed excellent. Seven departments (16 per cent) received the maximum possible grade.

Of the 24 physics and astronomy departments reviewed, 83 per cent were judged to be excellent, with all but one department given an aggregate score of 20 or more out of 24. In pharmacology and pharmacy, 92 per cent of the 12 departments reviewed were judged to be excellent.

In communication and media studies, however, just 21 per cent of the 19 departments were excellent, and in dance, drama and cinematics, 23 per cent were excellent.

In art and design, only 29 per cent of the 39 departments were excellent, compared with a third of departments given an aggregate of less than 20. The only two departments judged to be failing in the last year were Wigan and Leigh College's art and design department and Derby University's medicine department.

A department with just one grade one in any of the six areas is deemed to be failing.

The QAA pointed out that not all subject areas had completed the subject review process. The QAA discourages the aggregation of subject review scores and said it was not valid to sum scores as a basis for comparisons between subjects. But the number of high scores has been increasing dramatically - in the full 1996-98 round it was 34 per cent, compared with 24 per cent under the older system in 1992-95.

Many critics believe this is because universities are learning how to impress, or even deceive, peer reviewers.

Newcastle University psychologist Bruce Charlton, the first academic to boycott subject review, claimed in a recent article in the Oxford Magazine that some universities deliberately give false information to the reviewers and that the sector has created "virtual universities" for inspectors.

But QAA chief executive John Randall has said that the increased proportion of excellent grades reflects genuine improvement.

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