Thirst for firsts

July 7, 2000

The debate over University of York vice-chancellor Ron Cooke's "plea for firsts" to external examiners will surely surprise few academics or university administrators (News, THES, June 30). The higher education sector is playing servant to two increasingly demanding masters.

The first is the ideology that says students are our "customers" and that degree results are our "product". The second is that which says that employers and politicians are our customers (or "stakeholders") and that students are our product.

As Cooke is finding out, these agendas clash over the issue of standards, and universities are caught in the crossfire between litigious students on one side and the Quality Assurance Agency on the other.

Unfortunately, the sector (QAA included) appears to be unable to decide between the two ideologies and ends up paying lip-service to both. The cost of such indecision will ultimately be borne by the working academic and hard-pressed student.

Martin Mills

Lecturer in social anthropology University of Sussex

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