With academics under impossible pressure to inflate grades, how can 'real scholarship' thrive? asks Kenneth Minogue.
The De Montfort University grade-inflation saga is a tremendous morality tale, a good starting point for anyone seeking to understand the disaster that British education has become.
And this is one disaster we can confront with admirable neutrality: new Labour has worked hard to make things worse, but it built on good Tory foundations.
Until The Times Higher used the Freedom of Information Act, the fact that De Montfort had inflated the grades of failing first and second-year pharmacy students had been concealed. The university was caught between a Government bent on increasing the number of people in higher education and the realities of student motivation. Academic cultivation is not a service that can be "delivered" to all. Something had to give, and here it was, as one disapproving don put it, "academic integrity".
Students without much capacity to work on their own are a serious burden on any course for they require spoon-feeding. Dons are in any case now responsible for more than double the number of students they had to teach in earlier times. Before universities were conscripted by the Government, scholarship, research and creativity flourished amid a certain amount of donnish indolence. That indolence was a price universities paid for freedom.
A major casualty of subsequent change has been the professorial vocation to learn and teach. Now, in order to get something into the heads of many unmotivated students, a whole layer of inspectorates has mechanised the processes of learning. Universities are increasingly less distinct from schools. Professionalism has come to mean obeying the requirements of academic audits and research tests. Many dons have become casuists whose only idea of doing the right thing derives from obeying the rules.
The replacement of the University Grants Committee by funding councils managing a universal system allowed inspectors and bureaucrats to supplant trust in dons. The decline of education over the past century is proportional to increasing ministerial power. Bureaucratic accountability has replaced the professional ethos of earlier generations.
Consider the students in the De Montfort saga. The examining board faced a failure rate of more than 50 per cent. Many undergraduates, it was plausibly suggested, "did not have the right attitude to study". This provoked a revealing response from the head of pharmacy: "Perhaps the staff were not enthusing their students enough."
The essence of a real student is to be self-moving. Learning is often rather dull and requires diligence. The schools from which these undergraduates come are often places where the habits of scholarly application have not been acquired. The demand that De Montfort's pharmacy teachers "enthuse their students" is to place an impossible burden on their shoulders. More problems emerge from a cultural misunderstanding among some students. The policies that entitle so many to spend three years at university seem to have been taken as the promise of a delightful social experience free of parents with a little light diversion from books and lectures. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but the evidence can be seen most evenings in student bars.
Given this context, we must have some sympathy for the evidently deplorable grade inflation that hit De Montfort. These were people in a difficult spot not of their own making, and the problems they faced are widespread. An upper second is now pretty much the career grade in most universities. Back in 1990, historian Elie Kedourie warned that the Government's educational policy was transforming diamonds into glass. A disaster of this magnitude is a familiar consequence of central direction. Turning eggs into omelettes is easy enough, but how do you reverse the corruption? Good work and good people survive in the interstices, but universities have become the playthings of political caprice. The problem to be tackled is the literal de-moralisation of what is significantly called a "sector" of national life. How can real scholarship and research be revived?
Certainly, this is not going to be solved by administrators. A De Monfort spokesman responded to the revelations in fluent "adminspeak": "We have thoroughly reviewed all processes and have made changes where appropriate." No doubt!
What is to be done? We could start by reading a book or two. Hayek's Road to Serfdom reminds us of the consequences of giving up independence for government subsidy. And to understand the full dottiness of the educational world, perhaps Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall .
Kenneth Minogue is emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics.