Roger Pollard's defence of the PhD viva voce examination (THES, March 13) makes a very important point in the context of the debate concerning student numbers, quality and academic independence.
The PhD has always been promoted as an opportunity for an individual to carry out a piece of original work, and subsequently to defend that work and its originality. There is a vast difference between this image and the reality of the "sausage factory" university which most of us experience.
I spent many years working as an engineer for and within university departments, before becoming a student again (since 1994). Over the past 20 years (but particularly during the past decade), higher education's expansion has resulted in a reduction in standards. This is not unique to higher education: it is primarily apparent in our commercial culture, so one might just say that higher education has become increasingly commercial.
Policy-makers generally seem neither to make use of any measures of absolute quality, nor to consider the variation among individuals. Number of papers published takes precedence over the value to science of the findings they contain. Departments such as philosophy, which serve a limited demand are ruthlessly axed. Areas of research that have commercial spin-offs get the lion's share of funding.
The drives for expansion and for normalisation of per capita expenditure on undergraduate places also exemplify a commercial imperative. The inevitable outcome will not be (as some suggest) mediocrity, but a sinking even further to the lowest common denominator. I know final-year electronic engineering students who cannot read a circuit diagram or perform basic electrical calculations. Vast numbers of undergraduates arrive at university without having been taught the basics of how to apply themselves to learning anything. Sadly, most of them leave unchanged.
Instead of equipping young people with the intellectual means to learn and stimulating imagination and enthusiasm, the course of least resistance has been largely taken by the universities: that of cramming them with facts to be regurgitated at exam time. As a result, little or no personal development takes place, and vast amounts of human potential go untapped. The obtaining of the degree itself is construed as the goal, rather than being concomitant on having learned something of intrinsic value.
Payment in ever more rigorously monitored attendance at lectures purchases the product: the magic letters BSc, BA or MA. What accrued expertise these symbols represent is seldom questioned. By the time the PhD is embarked upon, this attitude is so firmly engrained that the potential for individual innovation is negligible.
However, there are fundamental differences between the commercial and education worlds. In the former, any detriment suffered as a result of inadequate quality is unlikely be more than an inconvenience, and legal redress is available to cover losses incurred. In the case of education, the detriment can be lifelong and crippling, and there is no comeback.
How does this connect with Roger Pollard's defence of the viva? Quite simply, the history of development in both humanities and sciences is the history of achievement by committed individuals with unfettered minds. We desperately need individual excellence. It is the only way we progress. The concepts of both individuality and excellence have latterly become unacceptable topics of conversation due to the politics of envy, but if everything which is not immediately attainable by the unprepared majority of people is to be disallowed, where does that lead us? If we assume that individual excellence is either (a) only the product of privilege, or (b) only the product of genetic predisposition, we deny the potential contribution of millions of people to our future.
What we must encourage in our universities is the development of well-rounded adaptable individuals with alert minds. The production line of higher pseudo-education is failing.
Michael D. Barwise
Huntingtower Road Sheffield