Take a tip from The X Factor's 'Mr Nasty'

December 24, 2004

We should stop rewarding mediocrity and tell it like it is, argues Tim Birkhead

Right. When I tap the dashboard I want you to stop as though a child has run out into the road. Bang. Pause. Screech. Hmmm. OK, we'll try that again later.

The prospect of an emergency stop to chemistry, physics or other unpopular degrees has highlighted some fundamental problems in higher education. The issue of keeping unpopular university subjects such as chemistry and physics afloat is just the tip of the iceberg. Twenty years ago if you plotted a frequency distribution of degree classifications, numbers would peak just below the 2:1-2:2 boundary, with a longish tail into the upper seconds and firsts. Today, after years of increased access to higher education, the frequency distribution is a mirror image of its former self.

The changed pattern has many possible explanations, including an improvement in teaching, but the most favoured is - and I shall have to whisper this even though it is widely acknowledged - that standards have fallen. A colleague in another university recently told me he had taught an undergraduate course in which students conduct a small research project.

The course finished with a lecture on how to produce a written report for assessment: he spelt out all the rules, all the pitfalls, and provided a printed example of correct and incorrect practice. When he came to mark the projects, the results were dire. Many of the students had ignored most of his instructions so he marked them down. The result was a distribution of marks that peaked in the lower seconds.

Not everyone, however, had ignored the instructions. Out of a class of 50, there were one or two excellent projects, rewarded with first-class marks, suggesting that there was nothing wrong with my colleague's teaching. The 2:2-peaked distribution caught the eye of the external examiners, contrasting as it did with all other assessments. To ensure compatibility across courses and lecturers, the examiners shifted the distribution upwards so that it peaked in the upper seconds.

Most readers of The Times Higher are unlikely to be fans of Pop Idol or The X Factor , but they should watch them - just once - to see the antithesis of Mr Nice Guy: Simon Cowell. In the programme, wannabe popstars line up and sing a song. If a contestant's performance is awful, Cowell tells them in no uncertain terms, and one presumes they then go off and try another career. Higher education, I feel, would benefit from several thousand Cowell clones to help restore standards. The competitive market for bums on seats, together with the introduction of tuition fees, means that, in general, university teachers (and, it appears, external examiners) are afraid of marking down mediocre work.

The long-term consequences of the Mr Nice Guy approach will be dire for universities, employers and, above all, students.

To return to the emergency stop analogy I began with, think of the possible consequences of passing a driver who has failed to do an emergency stop correctly just because they seem like a nice person and have paid a lot of money for their lessons.

To effect change, we need a concerted effort to break out of the culture in which less than the best is good enough. Setting standards in education is crucial, guiding undergraduates into good practice and ensuring that they operate at the right level is an essential part of higher education. The point is that there are absolute standards, not relative ones, especially in science.

It's time we extricated ourselves from a culture in which we praise and reward even the most banal performance. Encouraging students to make the mental effort to aspire to the right level without demoralising them is a demanding, but essential, job.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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