If you're asked to pass a failing student...

December 5, 2003

...don't do it. For all our sakes, do not collude with this undermining of the academy's standards, urges Bob Brecher

If you teach first-year undergraduates, you may well be wondering how to cope without giving up on standards: what on earth to do when it turns out that this year's improvement in A-level grades isn't matched by your students' capacity to deal with first-year university material. It may even be the second or 20th year you've wondered the same thing. But perhaps your doubts have been stilled by the knowledge that, by the end of their course, these same students' achievements are bound to surpass those of last year's cohort.

And, of course, there's a perfectly good reason why you should have such confidence. Thanks to ever-decreasing resources, ever-larger classes and the ever-diminishing time and energy students have because they're working long hours in the supermarket, they are getting better all the time.

How come? Because our teaching is improving all the time too. Doubtless we owe a debt of gratitude to Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency alike for their unremitting vigilance, helping us all to teach so much better than we ever did before.

Of course, there is a legitimate, and critically important, debate to be had about what academic standards consist of. It makes no sense to think in terms of timeless standards that take no account of differences between an elite system of academic apprenticeship and one concerned - genuinely - with fostering the critical intelligence of the majority. And, of course, "different" does not have to imply "worse". Intelligent debate on these matters is noticeable largely by its absence. But it won't occur so long as we go along with the "pass them anyway" mentality.

So what should we do if we're asked to pass students who have clearly failed to ensure that neither the university's income nor its league-table position suffers on account of the failure rate? What's the proper response when a committee, operating at some higher level than the examination board, suggests or decrees that, say, 35 per cent is close enough to 39 per cent to count as a (40 per cent) pass; and that since 30 is pretty close to 35, those marks should go up to 40 too? Even worse, suppose that you are the one unlucky enough to be your department's, area's or subject's "representative" on this committee: then what?

Don't go along with it. Even if it means going public or persuading your colleagues to take a stand. Do not collude with this undermining of education. It is tempting to resign yourself to what you know is going on up and down the country anyway but consider what will happen if we start giving firsts to half our students and 2.1s to the other half I before we move to firsts all round. If we give up on academic integrity in the short run, then in the long run we are helping make higher education just what new Labour wants it to be: a "sector that meets the needs of the economy in terms of trained people" ( The Future of Higher Education ). We are also helping Labour to reinforce its pretence that calling something so makes it so: "presentation, presentation, presentation". And in consoling ourselves that it doesn't really matter - "it's not worth bothering about students, the whole thing's such a shambles" - we're not only lying to our students but also imbibing an intellectual dishonesty inimical to the very idea of the academy.

Make no mistake: passing students who are unable or unwilling to make the intellectual effort required does them no favours. Better to make them face up to the fact. Better also to explain why the university does not have the resources to give students the time they need to make good the government's outwardly laudable but corrosively duplicitous commitment to widening participation. Otherwise there will be nothing left worth participating in for future generations of students - or for you.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at the University of Brighton.

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