Slipping to unfreedom

April 26, 1996

The enthusiasm to define the essence of "graduateness", identify the sine qua non of the degree grade, and establish the panel of guardians of all that is unalloyed about the gold standard of the disciplines has all the hallmarks of the last-ditch stand of Enlightenment modernism seeking to repulse the advance of postmodern relativism and its putative corrosion of universal and rational principles and protocols in public life and in higher education in particular.

However, I am not convinced that either the supposed problem or its proposed solution, as suggested by Colin Lawson (THES, April 19), are as unambiguously defined and compelling of the radical interventions promoted as the advocates of the decline and fall of higher education quality thesis seem to believe.

We have already had a run through of the issues here in the knee-jerk response of "more means worse" elitists at the time of the announcement of improved GCSE and A-level grades, and we seem to be seeing a similar ideological reaction to the upward movement of graduate attainment levels.

I prefer to interpret this not in terms of the rather dismissive concept of grade inflation, but as evidence of the success of students and academic colleagues in meeting the productivity and performance targets set in recent years despite resource constraints. That more students are exiting with better qualifications is a cause for celebration and, were times and conditions otherwise, sufficient grounds for all-round pay increases.

To respond to the Higher Education Quality Council and the HE Statistics Agency reports on the progress students and academics are making with calls for national curricula, national examinations, national examination bodies and national examiners seems to presuppose that one can have faith in a single central adjudication system when one cannot in a plurality of such.

Any quango established to oversee national knowledge diffusion and appraisal will be biased and unlikely to incorporate other than a handful of self-appointed and sponsored minders of the public mind and purse.

Authoritarian resolutions to the imaginary problem of Britain's slide into an educational backwater are precisely what we do not need if we are to stimulate dynamism , creativity, and innovation in educational settings.

Business has yet to prove its case that the weaknesses in Britain's economic performance lie at the feet of the nation's educational establishments and their alumni. We in higher education should not be bounced into a paroxysm of breast-beating for the sins of capital investment planners, unimaginative and risk-avoiding entrepreneurs, bad fortune in the global marketplace etc. How often do we produce talented, willing and able graduates who cannot find work or who are employed below their own capacity ? It should be remembered that for most academics in practice and for most of education history, performance is judged and not measured. It may be that those who bought into the myth of objective academic testing are finding out that it can only be sustained by mechanisms of imposed curricular control at the cost of professional self-confidence.

Obsession with quantification has never been all that strong in the higher reaches of academic life, including not only arts and humanities, but natural sciences, where the creative turn and elegant solution are much valued. We ought not to let the accountancy mentality and the drive to satisfy a desire for simple formulaic answers lead us down the slippery slope to academic "unfreedom".

Of course there will be variations in judgement between assessors, courses and institutions. There always have been both within the academy and outside it, at least in democratic conditions. What we are likely to have to choose between is the perpetuation of the illusion of uniform marking and appraisal standards by bureaucratic-centralist diktat, on the one side, and the relativities that accompany free professions in free societies, on the other side.

Mature academic communities can find acceptable solutions to temporary and local lapses from professional standards of intellectual judgement without calling in the national guard or embarking on some chimerical quest for the grail of national and international comparability.

It is up to graduates to prove to themselves and employers that their qualifications are as good as the next person's; and it is up to every self-respecting academic in any self-respecting educational institution to see to it that such confidence is justified. What is the evidence, as distinct from the prejudice, that this is not the case?

Will Keenan Department of social sciences Nottingham Trent University

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments