Flexibility is key issue in debate over standards

June 11, 1999

Many THES readers believe that standards in higher education have fallen since 1990 but, unlike two years ago, those who do are now a minority. The survey also shows a tough attitude to low standards. A large majority favour removing degree-awarding powers where standards are low.

Lurid tales abound to support the idea that standards have been "dumbed down". These are fuelled by the critical report on Thames Valley University and the suspicion that league tables and the overseas student market are contributing to overly high pass rates. Anecdotes circulate privately but there is little appetite for open investigation, which tars the whole system with bad publicity.

Part of the suspicion focuses on rapidly rising scores for teaching quality assessments carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency (page 3). Is this further evidence of "dumbing down"? Is it a conspiracy to ensure most institutions qualify for "light touch" quality control in future?

Rising ratings can mean the standard of performance required for top grades has fallen. They can also genuinely indicate improvement. There is a ghastly British tendency to deny all possibility of improvement by automatically assuming that when attainment scores rise the tests must have got easier.

Institutions are now better at doing well on teaching quality assessments, unsurprisingly given the time and care going into preparation. Consultancy is now a nice little earner, documentation is polished, black sheep are banished and dress rehearsals are a matter of course.

But teaching has probably got better too. It has certainly got more professional. No more back-to-the-class lecturing while writing on the blackboard. Higher education teachers now have to think about what they are doing and be prepared to be explicit about it. But is the system being put in place conducive to or destructive of students' development as critical, creative and self-motivating learners? Has enough space been left within the structures being erected to allow for that indefinable spark that leads to enthusiastic scholarship?

This week sees the award of the first "Higher" Science Teacher of the Year prize, a joint enterprise of The THES and the Royal Institution, designed to promote inspiring teaching. Sue Whiten, the winner (page 34), showed in her presentation at the RI how seriously good teachers now think about their pedagogy; how much time goes into producing learning materials using modern technology; and how an excellent teacher can ignite the mundane matter of mastering factual information.

More professional teaching suggests that the quality of education being offered has genuinely improved. What it does not do is tell us anything about the standards students are expected to attain. This is the difficult area where the QAA is currently struggling with benchmarks and thresholds: a task that gets harder and harder the more the range of higher education institutions, courses and students diversifies.

Diversity is the enemy - or perhaps the casualty - of the increasingly centralised control of government through the funding councils and agencies like the QAA. This process could tighten further if the private colleges accept the government's shilling and go for public funding (page 4).

The question that should now be preoccupying higher education (but does not seem to be) is not whether there is grade inflation in TQAs or whether standards are being dumbed down against some absolute measure, but whether we are developing a system broad and flexible enough to respond to the diverse demands of a wider intake of students and a wider range of employers.

One standard cannot fit all.

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