Academic standards are worth fighting for

It is inexcusable that some people graduate from UK universities without a basic command of mathematics or grammar, says John Warren

December 13, 2018
Source: David Humphries

Papua New Guinea frequently describes itself as “the land of the unexpected”. This title relates to the fact that misrule is an everyday occurrence, and that almost anything can happen at any time.

That is as true within universities as it is anywhere else. Much of what I witnessed during my two years as vice-chancellor of a small university in the Pacific nation would have been instantly relatable for anyone who has worked in UK academia. However, although processes were familiar, they were often so extreme in nature that they provided new insights into developments half a world away.

This thesis was never truer than when a fist fight broke out during an exam board meeting. While it sounds crazy that such a thing could happen, there can be few academics who have not felt the urge to punch a colleague during these tedious sessions.

In this case, I was the intended target, as the academic pro vice-chancellor pushed over a table and lunged forwards, like a cross between an elephant seal and a windmill. What had caused him to lose his temper was his embarrassment at having been exposed for not understanding the university’s exam regulations.

To pass each element of the course, students were required to gain more than 40 per cent in both coursework and exam, and more than 50 per cent overall. A simple and sensible enough rule, you might think. But one problem was that a significant proportion of staff were unable to correctly calculate percentages. At an earlier meeting, a senior lecturer had exclaimed that 16 “cannot possibly be 40 per cent of 40: show me the equations!”

An even more serious problem was that even though the regulation was in the student handbook, many members of staff had never read the rules, and some routinely applied their own, which required students to obtain more than 50 per cent in both coursework and exam.

Surely this sort of confusion could never happen in a Western university? Well, when I told this story to a retired senior administrator back in the UK, he simply laughed and replied that very similar events had been routine in his day. In fact, each department had often had its own complex exam regulations, which it justified on academic grounds.

Having been an external examiner at many UK universities, I can confirm that such anarchy is most definitely a thing of the past. But what is still current is the apparent inability of many UK undergraduates to fully comprehend the mathematics behind the calculations of their degree classifications.

It is commonplace for students to appeal individual marks in the hope that doing so will raise their degree class (rather than out of any belief in the unfairness of the awarded score). However, unless their marks are raised to virtually 100 per cent, the weighting of individual components of work are typically so small that only rarely can this have any impact on their overall grade.

Such students’ investment of more time and energy in trying to have low marks raised than in studying for the next assessment is, in part, a cultural change. But it is a cultural change that is possible only because of their basic failure to understand the maths – and it raises fundamental questions about the nature of “graduateness”. Is it reasonable to expect that all graduates should have a basic level of competence in mathematics and English?

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

As for arts graduates – well, without wanting to slip into my grumpy old man routine, it’s worth pointing out that, as a scientist, I am not alone in being exasperated by those among them who publicly boast of their mathematical ignorance. No scientist would ever be proud of knowing nothing about the basic rules of English. They would quite rightly be ridiculed.

That said, lots of them do struggle. Many UK universities are also producing significant numbers of graduates (not all of them in the sciences, admittedly) who are unable to communicate effectively in writing. I say this as someone who has been struggling with dyslexia since well before its diagnosis reached epidemic proportions. It’s absolutely right that we provide such students better support than was previously available. But “better support” means teaching them the tools and tricks that they need to communicate effectively, not setting them alternative assessments and allowing them to graduate without having acquired graduate-level language skills.

Unfortunately, I fear that this problem is unlikely to be addressed if we continue to identify students as our consumers, as opposed to the employers who – when you take the time to talk to them – routinely complain about graduates’ failings.

I am not arguing that the UK should abandon specialised degree programmes and move to a more broad-based US style of higher education. However, I do believe that if UK universities are to produce graduates who are fit for the workplace, we need to ensure that they have a broader level of basic competence than is currently the case. Making sure that they can all calculate 40 per cent of 40 would be a good start.

John Warren was vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment from 2016 to 2018.

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