Rose-tinted spectacles come off ..

March 12, 2009

Rose-tinted spectacles come off as MPs hear about plagues of plagiarism and faulty washing machines

Chairman Phil Willis began the latest session of the Parliamentary inquiry into university standards by making it clear that he did not want a repeat of the rose-tinted evidence presented by a group of vice-chancellors a few weeks ago.

With Geoffrey Alderman on the panel before him, he need not have worried.

The professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, resplendent in his three-piece suit with bow-tie and pocket-watch, described a "plague of plagiarism", denounced as "a fiction" the notion that degrees from different institutions were comparable, and said he had concluded that an Ofsted-style inspectorate was necessary to maintain standards.

He was joined by Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, Gina Wisker, co-chair of the Heads of Education Development Group, and James Wisdom, vice-chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association. They did not share Professor Alderman's views.

Several times Professor Burgess set off a chain reaction on the bench, with Professor Alderman shaking his head and Professor Wisker nodding hers, as he gave evidence.

Mr Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, asked the witnesses whether the quality of teaching in higher education had improved over the past 30 years.

Professor Burgess fell back on the results of the National Student Survey - proof positive, he said, that most were happy with what they got.

In an unlikely analogy, he compared students to washing-machine owners: "If you substitute 2 million students for 2 million washing machines, wouldn't you expect some owners to complain about quality and standards?"

Mr Willis saw this as ducking the question and told him so.

Professor Alderman, drumming his fingers impatiently on the desk, agreed: "Students are the last people who are qualified to judge academic standards; they would say the quality of their education was good, wouldn't they? I wouldn't put too much faith in the National Student Survey."

The session, a tight 45 minutes, took a whirlwind tour of the issues, from the relationship between teaching and research to the strength of the Quality Assurance Agency. In truth, many of the arguments were familiar, including the doom and gloom.

But Professor Alderman finished with a flourish, suggesting that the increasing prevalence of coursework in place of examinations had led to an explosion of plagiarism.

"Good teachers design plagiarism out of their courses," countered Professor Wisdom. "That's true when you have good teachers," Professor Alderman responded, without a flicker of a smile.

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