Maintain standards? That's way more than my job's worth

In today's insecure academy, quality control takes a back seat to pleasing students and covering up errors, a senior lecturer claims

March 17, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

It seems that everyone knows someone who has worked in the food industry who delights in telling hygiene horror stories, followed by the dire warning: don't eat such-and-such a brand's burgers or biscuits. At least some of these tales appear to be more than urban myths and result in prosecutions, and public hygiene inspectors have become the stars of the small screen. So why don't we seem to hear about the many horrendous human errors that must occur in our own higher education sector?

Here are four examples that I have witnessed in three different respected British higher education establishments.

The first must occur frequently. A member of staff loses a set of exam papers. No one owns up and, to cover for the error, average marks are returned based on students' performance in other exams.

Second, and more extreme, a student fails their dissertation and is given a year to resubmit before they can graduate. Despite adding extra material over the year, the student is awarded a lower mark. When they appeal, their original mark is recalculated and it turns out that the student did in fact pass at the first attempt a year earlier. Does the university own up? Why of course not, it simply raises the mark of the second submission and the student graduates, oblivious to the fact that they have wasted an entire year.

The third example comes from my first exam board, which remains the only time I have ever been asked to swear an oath of secrecy (can that really be good practice?). A student fails to turn up in time for an exam in the morning in spite of having asked a member of staff the previous day for its time and place. So they are made to sit the exam in the afternoon, locked in a room unsupervised.

Subsequently, when their script is marked, it is found to contain seven pages of word-for-word text from a standard textbook. Since no one was properly invigilating the exam, it is felt that the student cannot be accused of plagiarism. Indeed, I was told that the student "may have a photographic memory" - this is the same student who could not remember if the exam was in the morning or the afternoon.

At this point, let me confess: I am director of education in a large department at an old, respected university. So, I hear you ask, why the hell don't I do something about such problems?

This final example makes clear the sort of battle I have been trying to fight - without success - within the system over the past few years.

We have two lecturers who are in many ways very similar. One the students like and find entertaining, but their lectures are riddled with errors. The students find the second dull and dry, but their lectures are well researched, up to date and full of relevant material.

The National Student Survey features highly in our publicity material, and the university is not at all keen to challenge the students' word; it matters more that they are happy than that they are appropriately educated. So we don't address the problem head on. The second member of staff is encouraged to take a teaching qualification, while the first - well, to be honest, no one wants to rock that boat either, the customers are happy after all and we all make mistakes.

But the point is that students are not our customers - they are our raw materials and they are certainly not qualified to be our quality control.

There are, of course, mechanisms other than student satisfaction surveys to ensure quality in higher education. External examiners, for example, have a long and well-respected role ensuring that standards are maintained. But we are all aware that external examiners are so overworked and poorly rewarded that they cannot be expected to identify or sort out these kinds of problems, especially when they are deliberately swept under the carpet.

In the end, maintaining standards comes down to having trust in academics to be honest and honourable. Unfortunately, in the ultra-competitive environment in which we operate, with little in the way of job security, staff all too frequently perceive that they have everything to lose from exposing problems and nothing to gain. Apparently, the prevailing attitude is, don't dis the burger bar when you need a job selling burgers.

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