I'm terribly sorry, but a fat cat ate my principles

May 21, 2004

When the money men sweep through the front door, academic integrity slinks out the back, says Valerie Atkinson.

There comes a point in the academic year, just hours before degree results are announced, when staff with administrative responsibility for examinations reach breaking point. It's hard to know whether to laugh hysterically or weep in desperation at the impossibility of it all.

Thousands of marks to be checked, combined, entered, computed. Scripts and academics go missing, students use library codes instead of exam numbers, plagiarism is unearthed and then the computer crashes. And in the middle of it all, you break a fingernail. The horror just never stops.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect accompanying this mayhem is an increasingly cavalier attitude adopted by some staff towards the very heart of university life: teaching the new generation. OK, I grant you, research is Definitely Important. But students have to be properly schooled to undertake research. And how can we be sure that they are? By teaching them, and then assessing their progress assiduously. That is why assessment is crucial. Try telling that to the troops. Many of them have other things on their brilliant minds.

Picture this. An exams officer and a secretary are confronting pages of exam marks, trying to make sense of the additions, the aggregates, the blanks, the sudden leaps or dips in performance. Numbers are swimming before their eyes, temporarily obliterating comprehension. Could a standard deviation turn out to be some curiously acceptable form of sexual perversion? And what on earth are upper quartiles? Retro floor covering? Nothing makes sense any more.

Then out of a seminar room swarms a gaggle of grey suits, oozing importance, accompanied by two academics. An industrial liaison meeting.

One academic is overheard regretting that he has not managed to mark his exam papers because of the preparation needed for this encounter. He is reassured by his colleague: "But you have a good excuse to be late; in fact, you have the perfect excuse." Really? What could that be?

The perfect excuse has always existed, primarily in the minds of those who have given it. It has included tons of fascinating things, such as the birth, death or marriage of innumerable close relatives, repeatedly; the mysterious disappearance of exam scripts from car back seats, bicycle panniers and public lavatories; and, most irritatingly, the claim: "I wasn't informed about deadlines." But recently and with alarming complacency: "I'm too busy doing more important things."

And you can bet your recent pay rise that those important things will increasingly have something to do with money. Whether in the form of industrial endowments or research grants, increased tuition fees or decreased pension pots, money not only talks, it deafens. So the perfect excuse for abdicating responsibility for all teaching matters is to be schmoozing the spondulicks. And make no mistake, although the explanation will be that the money will benefit the university community, when industrial fat cats stroll through the door jangling their change purses, academic integrity creeps out surreptitiously through the catflap.

Listen to the logic: my department will profit from the liaison and - with a little luck - so will I. If a few exam marks get overlooked along the way, so what? Perhaps they don't matter. Perhaps the pursuit of the pound will soon outweigh all else. Rumour has it that rich firms and recruiting agencies are already offering backhanders to academics to recommend "good" students. Why bother with the evidence? Why not cut in the middle man and cut out all that middle tedium? Degree results could be bought over the internet, and teaching and examining could be done by students as a peer group exercise in cooperative management.

In which case, administrative staff would simply relax and spend what used to be results time recharging their batteries and filing their fingernails.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at York University.

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