Poll reveals pressure to dumb down

November 19, 2004

First-hand evidence of the widespread dumbing down of academic standards has emerged in an exclusive Times Higher survey.

Academics reported that they were teaching students who were not capable of benefiting from degree-level study and that they had been forced to pass students who did not deserve it - as university managers struggled to maintain student numbers and teaching budgets.

The survey of almost 400 academics found that five out of six agreed that "the squeeze on the resources of higher education institutions is having a general adverse effect on academic standards".

The survey also found that:

* 71 per cent agreed that their "institution had admitted students who are not capable of benefiting from higher level study"

* Almost half (48 per cent) reported that they had "felt obliged to pass a student whose performance did not really merit a pass"

* 42 per cent said that "decisions to fail students' work had been overruled at higher levels in the institution" - compared with 38 per cent who disagreed with the statement

* Almost one in five admitted to turning "a blind eye" to student plagiarism.

Responding to the survey, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It would be worrying if universities were admitting students who are not capable of completing their courses, or passing students who do not merit it. The Government is clear that admission to university must be on merit, based on a student's achievements and potential."

Alan Smithers, an adviser to MPs on education policy, said: "These findings are powerful evidence of something that has been very difficult to prove."He said some universities were trapped in a "vicious circle" by a funding system that forced them to accept weaker students to fill places, but imposed financial penalties if any dropped out. "It is almost inevitable that standards will drop," he said.

Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We have been saying for a long time that the Government (and institutions) are trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. There are simply too few lecturers employed in higher education."

Investigations by The Times Higher reveal how far some universities have been forced to make compromises.

At Middlesex University, minutes from a computing department meeting last year highlight "complaints made at assessment boards about the literacy and numeracy levels of students".

Documents also reveal that over two consecutive terms, Middlesex computing undergraduates were provided with the model answers before sitting the exams. The students produced such similar, word-perfect answers that there were concerns about mass plagiarism.

Ken Goulding, Middlesex pro vice-chancellor, said that it was unacceptable that a tutor had provided answers in revision classes, but said the students' results were allowed to stand with the agreement of the external examiners as there had been no cheating.

The "dumbing down" internet survey of Times Higher readers with teaching and marking responsibilities undertaken over the past month also found that most academics agreed that their universities had become increasingly tolerant of student absenteeism. Almost half said that their department had cut important curriculum areas because they were too expensive to teach.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said that the survey represented only a small sample of academics. But she added: "UUK has for years pressed the Government to reform funding to reverse years of spending decline to prevent a quality crisis. This is why UUK fought so hard to secure the variable fees policy."

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