The great betrayal or the great hoax? (2)

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

I have been aware of falling standards since I was 12 when my excellent Latin master informed us that we were the worst class he had ever had the misfortune to teach.

He had said the same thing to every class in living memory. And he said it to the few cohorts that followed us.

He may, of course, have been right. Or he may just have been a grumpy old man who believed that the world was generally going to the dogs.

Either way, his views were not a sound basis for policy development.

Much the same can be said about The Times Higher 's internet survey of "dumbing down" - 400 self-selecting academics do not constitute a valid population from which to generalise.

Nevertheless, despite its serious methodological flaws, it has raised important questions.

Are the standards of honours degrees being forced down to accommodate students who cannot benefit from higher education?

Is higher education, in short, going to the dogs?

No sensible vice-chancellor in his or her right mind would put pressure on academic colleagues to lower standards.

Universities are very leaky ships and instructions of that sort will always reach journalists' (and the Quality Assurance Agency's) ears.

Confidential emails are, in effect, in the public domain. The risk of disaster is so high as to be a racing certainty.

The reputational damage caused by a serious standards scandal is huge, not only to the individual university, but also to the higher education system as a whole. It is just not worth it for a very short-term gain.

That there is no evidence of widespread abuse does not mean that questions about changing standards are irrelevant.

The academic community's expectations of its students must, of course, change over time: in only a few subjects would the level expected 100 years ago still be acceptable today.

Change does not have to be about the raising or lowering of standards though: there is also lateral change.

The important thing is that debate should be intelligent and informed.

Academic standards, if the words are to mean anything useful, should be explicit - and described in terms of the levels of achievement required of students; recognised as appropriate by the academic community as a whole; and subjected to regular review both internally and externally.

The QAA's academic infrastructure provides the framework for doing this.

The academic community rightly insists that it should decide its own standards - it is an important aspect of its autonomy - and the public trusts it to do so with integrity. Change should occur because, and when, the academic community considers it right.

The survey raises the prospect that students are being wrongly admitted because they cannot benefit from higher education.

The idea that future benefit to an unknown individual is reliably predictable prompts a host of questions.

Where does this ex cathedra certainty come from?

If schoolteachers' predictions of A-level grades are as poor as they appear to be, why should we trust the judgement of higher education admissions officers who rely on them?

Do you let people have a try or do you exclude them because you have decided (on very dubious evidence) that they must fail?

Should we not be trying to help students succeed at whatever level they can reach, and then send them out with a statement reflecting their achievement?

Why is anything less than an honours degree seen as a badge of failure?

Let early leavers demonstrate their level of success and give them the opportunity, if they want it, to come back and go further in due course.

Why is the debate always about the virtues of exclusion and failure, rather than inclusion and success?

Institutions that take a risk and accept students who may not stay the course are to be applauded. But that carries with it a heavy responsibility to those students.

They will need more personalised support and guidance. They will need more help with their learning. They will need imaginative and dedicated teachers.

These are all expensive.

The biggest betrayal of standards will happen if students are admitted on the promise of opportunity and then left in the lurch.

Peter Williams is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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