Luton makes it harder to fail amid dumbing-down fears

December 12, 2003

New rules to allow students to study "without fear of failure" in their first year have been agreed at Luton University in response to concerns that more than a quarter drop out.

Amid claims that the university risks "dumbing down", Luton has agreed to change its academic regulations to allow students to fail a greater number of first-year courses and be able to continue studying without needing to take resits.

Documents from the university's academic board, obtained by The THES , show that the university has agreed plans to re-classify the first year of all degree courses as "foundational in character", allowing examiners to compensate for students failing parts of their courses.

This would offer "students the opportunity to learn how to manage their learning without fear of failure from temporary lapses of concentration", according to the minutes.

Luton's new vice-chancellor, Les Ebdon, has made tackling dropouts - predicted to be as high as 25 per cent in this week's performance indicators - an "immediate corporate priority" for the university.

In October, the academic board agreed to implement plans to consider the first year as foundational and to allow boards of examiners to "compensate failure" in up to 30 credits out of 120 at level one, allowing students to progress without having to resit failed subjects.

Students in such a position would be given clear guidance on their strengths and weaknesses, the board agreed.

The decision prompted strong criticism this week. Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said the move was "bad news" in terms of the quality of both the degree course and the students' experience.

Professor Smithers said: "Universities have a duty to maintain standards.

And they have a duty to give students proper feedback. It can be a much greater waste of everyone's time and money to have students fail at a late stage in their course, or to gain a degree in a field where they lack talent."

He said that Luton had been encouraged to compromise its degree standards by financial pressure, as dropouts attract the clawback of funding and poor performance indicators damage recruitment.

Nick Tiratsoo, a former history professor at Luton, who is writing a book about the university's management and direction, raised concerns about the new regulations, claiming they were counterproductive.

He said: "Such dumbing down will sell students short and is an insult to local people."

Professor Ebdon said the regulations were merely being "adjusted in line with best practice across the sector".

He said: "The teaching and learning experience at Luton is top quality.

Indeed, The Times placed Luton in 14th position out of 121 institutions for the excellent quality of our teaching."

He added that the university had been given "excellent" scores in all six of its last teaching quality assessments.

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