Select Committee Inquiry - Can't think, won't think: students damned by scholars

March 5, 2009

"Key concepts and intellectual ideas that students readily understood 10-15 years ago ... they struggle to understand today," Peter Dorey, reader in British politics at Cardiff University, told the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee.

"Indeed, many of them have serious problems thinking critically or independently at all: 'Just tell us what we need to know ... to pass our exams. Everything else is irrelevant or boring,' they say.

"Many of them are semi-literate and write in text-message style. However, we have to assume that the inability to spell is always due to dyslexia. We are not permitted to penalise poor spelling ...

"They often sit in seminars with only their mobile phone in front of them (which they anxiously look at every three minutes to see if any of their friends have contacted them, rather than paying attention to the lesson), but no books or notepads.

"Indeed, the view is becoming established that having paid £3,000 in fees, they should not have to do any work. They expect academics to do all the work now - we are their servants.

"There is no point increasing the number of graduates if they are too illiterate or lazy to be of any use to employers."

"My belief is that a degree awarded in the arts and humanities is worth less than its equivalent of even five years ago," said Rob Penhallurick, specialist in the Anglo-Welsh dialects of North Wales at Swansea University. "This is despite the proliferation of quality controls, some aspects of which I believe contribute to declining standards."

He said that "statistical comparisons" between institutions have become "a major mechanism for 'ensuring' consistency of quality". This means that no matter the level of intake in any year, the spread of results will remain the same from year to year.

"This promotes a fallacious understanding of standards," he said.

He added that students found guilty of plagiarism are allowed to resit the modules concerned, which means that cheating is being treated in the same way as honest failure.

He also said that students' claims of extenuating or mitigating circumstances have increased. "The exam board is then asked ... to ratify an imagined mark - that is, to imagine how that student would have performed if things had been different."

"Over the past 20 or so years, there has been a systemic failure to maintain appropriate academic standards," Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, told the committee.

"The blame for this lies primarily with university chief executives, who have in general been willing to subordinate academic standards to their preoccupation with league tables and market share."

Stuart Derbyshire, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, claimed that he was put under pressure to mark students' work leniently.

As Times Higher Education reported in December 2008, he told the committee that one examiner increased the marks he had given his students and told him he had to "work harder to find the excellence" in his students' work.

Birmingham insisted that independent external examiners ensure consistency and transparency in marking and that it is not unusual for academics to be asked to look again at marks.

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