The great betrayal or the great hoax? (1)

November 26, 2004

Standards have plummeted because failure is inconvenient, insists Adrian Quinn. Not so, Peter Williams says - 'dumbing down' is the invention of grumpy old men who can't accept that change isn't always bad

Not so long ago, higher education in the UK was something of a cottage industry.

Tutors were responsible for virtually all aspects of their students' learning experience, from the delivery of course content to what is euphemistically called pastoral care.

Despite the rapid move to a system of mass higher education, a distinct whiff of the old way of doing things persists - but only inasmuch as blame for an individual's failure today is quickly transferred to those who teach them.

The tutor who has appropriated responsibility for the struggling student now feels under enormous pressure to lower standards to convert that failure into success.

For those who stand their ground, the canvassing and official appeals that typically follow become very time-consuming.

They get browbeaten by their superiors, told they are unreasonable by their peers and may even have matters taken out of their hands in the calculation of final marks.

The pressure is very real and can be found across all institutions and all subjects. Its origin lies in the audit culture that has been imposed on universities to manage the expansion of higher education on which the Government is so keen.

The thinking behind this is cynical and assumes that professional teachers cannot be trusted to ensure the quality of what they do. We must therefore be monitored or we will become completely feckless. We are reduced to constantly looking over our shoulders, nervously trying to spot the next audit mechanism designed to catch us out.

In this kind of bureaucratic environment, standards are a luxury.

But, sadly, instead of resisting the audit culture, lecturers seem to have internalised its values.

Increasing access while upholding standards is very difficult. It necessarily means that substantial numbers of students will fail to make the grade.

But neither the Government nor its regulators are prepared to accept this fact. For them, a second-rate qualification, a kind of till receipt, is preferable to none at all.

So the measure of standards has become less a matter of what happens when a student makes the grade and more what happens when they do not.

In my time teaching at three UK universities, I have seen the failure of a single student send entire academic departments into a panic, because failure means that an individual might not complete their studies within the prescribed three years.

At any British university, the venue where one can most closely observe the disregarding of standards is the yearly meeting of the board of examiners.

It is during these secretive early summer gatherings that stressed academics apply an examination system so unsound as to be comical.

Faced with the inconvenience of failure, examiners collude, entirely within the rules blessed by the Quality Assurance Agency, to find a way around it.

They rely on a grab bag of solutions, the most questionable of which is the compensated fail, whereby students are awarded degrees despite the fact they have often fallen below the required grade for much of their course.

The abuse is spectacular and it takes place every year at every university where any student has failed.

Few speak out against it as this does not make for a peaceful life.

Complaining leads to disputes with colleagues and being labelled a trouble-maker.

Internationally, a degree from a British university still has a certain cachet. But our colleagues abroad are slowly getting wise to us.

The system for awarding degrees in the UK is laced with so much bad faith and bad practice that it might not be long before our peers begin to wonder about the credibility of this once revered qualification.

Overseas institutions manage quite happily without quality auditors. And tutors there have wisely safeguarded their autonomy, with the result that it is impossible for superiors to fudge students' results in the way they do in the UK.

It is easy for a university to say that it upholds standards. But without the integrity to observe the fundamental distinction between a pass and a fail, the whole idea of quality becomes meaningless.

Adrian Quinn is a lecturer in communication studies at Liverpool University.

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