Degree standards: time to call time on the monopolists

Emran Mian argues for standardisation in setting of exams

December 27, 2014

The University of Oxford gives out more first and upper-second class degrees than the norm.

There could be three reasons for this: it only admits better students; it provides better teaching; or its exams are too easy. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has tested the first explanation and found that, after controlling for the quality of the intake, Oxford still gives out ‘too many’ good degrees.

Applications to Oxford for next year are now closed. Prospective students might have liked to have known whether Oxford is better at teaching or soft at marking. The problem is that Oxford does its own teaching and sets its own exams.

How it teaches goes to the heart of its character as an institution, of course, and like all universities, Oxford should have the freedom to decide how it does it. But setting exams – and then awarding degrees - is a different matter.

The degree is supposed to tell people who weren’t in the classroom with you what you have learned and how good you are at putting your education to use.

Yet there are over 100 degree-awarding bodies in the UK, and no one – no parent, no employer, no admissions tutor looking at applications for postgraduate study – has an informed view on the quality of all of them.

As Chris Rust has argued in THE, even university vice-chancellors struggle to explain the differences between their degrees.

As a consequence, we have a higher education system in which prospective students don’t know whether universities are good at teaching or good at giving out degrees; and to other people the value of a degree is shrouded in mystery.

What this means is that well-established ‘brands’ like Oxford can continue to do exceptionally well in attracting students almost regardless of anything else. For those that are less well known, the route to competitive advantage may be to improve the marketing of their degrees rather than the quality of the teaching.

The contrast to secondary education couldn’t be starker. Schools don’t set their own exams. Qualifications – such as A levels – are awarded by a much smaller group of bodies, which are independent of the schools. This is an essential factor if we are to have any competition between schools on the quality of their teaching.

This government has upped competition among schools and tried to create it in higher education too. From next year there will be no restrictions on undergraduate student numbers. This means that universities that can attract more students will be able to grow while others may have to shrink. Ideally students will flock to the highest-quality courses, but the quality of teaching can be obscured if the university puts the focus on its brand instead.

Research by Which?, for example, suggests that some of the newer universities – which you might expect to invest heavily in the teaching experience to close the gap with more established rivals – provide the lowest number of contact hours.

Consolidating degree-awarding powers would force them to change. I’ve probably done enough to wind up Oxford graduates already. So let’s assume that the reason Oxford hands out more firsts and 2:1s is that the teaching is excellent. Students who have benefited from that teaching do well despite the fact that the exams are rigorous. In this scenario, what would happen if every low-ranking university had to teach to the Oxford exams? The answer is that they would be forced to improve their teaching. No amount of free wifi or fancy student accommodation would make up for everyone in the year risking a third-class degree.

I am, of course, being too reductive. Oxford may be the ideal exam-setter for some subjects, and for students who are exceptionally able. For students on more vocational courses its neighbour Oxford Brookes – which runs, for example, a unique motorsports engineering programme in association with key employers - may be the better bet. An alternative would be to have the learned societies – such as the Royal Academy of Engineering – taking over the setting of exams.

One major challenge in all this is preserving the autonomy – and diversity – of teaching while the awarding of degrees is consolidated.

What we’ve seen in economics since the financial crisis is a divergence between departments that keep teaching as if nothing has changed, and others that have modernised their curriculum (by the way, Oxford is doing the latter). Nevertheless it’s vital in higher education that teaching is as dynamic as possible - not left in a rut by those setting the exams.

A solution may be for each university to set some of its exams and then a central awarding body to add one or two general papers to guarantee rigour.

The higher education sector, as you might expect, will hate any such change, incremental or radical. After all, degree awarding powers are hard won, and it would be a wrench to give them up. But that’s precisely the issue. When universities award their own degrees, they become providers of a monopoly good. And when every provider behaves like a monopolist then students lose out. 

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Reader's comments (2)

Perhaps Emran Mian isn't aware that UK universities are autonomous institutions. He also fails to understand that curriculum content will be underpinned by research, and because of this, universities are poor candidates for any kind of national curriculum. As Prof Thomas Docherty has pointed out in the THE, some people are prone to confuse academic standards with standardisation, and clearly this is the error here. As for degree class awards - Oxford, like any other university, will base its assessments on learning outcomes achieved. This is known as criterion referencing and this mode of assessment cannot be run in parallel with some kind of norm referencing. We either have one or the other, and generally, in higher education, we have the former, for the simple reason he alludes to - that we want to credential our students on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and skills. Mian seems like another dashboard dope-head who assumes universities are not competent to do the job they have been doing for several centuries.
The anomalies and absurdities are too many to mention. But here are just a few: 1) The notion that there should be single 'level playing field'. What we have, in reality, is a whole set of different but level playing fields upon which roughly similar institutions play roughly similar games. It would be reasonable, for example, to expect the small specialist arts institutions to be comparable. But unreasonable to compare them against an Oxford or Imperial. 2) External examiners normally are asked to tick a box on their reports which confirms that the programme they are 'examining' meets the 'national standards', when there aren't any (except, perhaps, where professional bodies e.g. nursing, are involved). Nevertheless, virtually every examiner I know ticks that box because the consequences of not ticking it are too serious too contemplate. 3) Even within the same discipline there may be very different approaches, philosophies, cultures between different institutions. Liz Morrish above points out... the system we have is a long established, constantly evolving system, developed and - importantly - implemented by communities of academic practice who do, in fact, take their pedagogic responsibilities very seriously. That sense of a complex adaptive system actually working is what gives credence to the oft-stated claims about the quality of the UK HE system. To demand some form of national, standardised academic 'driving test' is to misunderstand wholly the nature of the phenomenon