Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Not fewer students, but fewer Vice-Chancellors

Leighton Andrews, Education Minister in Wales, indicated in a speech to the Welsh Assembly earlier this week that he wants to see a shake up in higher education in the province. He wants to reduce the number of university-level institutions in Wales through a series of mergers, as a result of which he expects there to be significantly fewer universities in Wales by 2013. In other words, this process of amalgamating institutions is expected to proceed quite rapidly. However, the Minister expects that student numbers will be essentially unchanged, while there will be 'fewer Vice-Chancellors'.

Some current and former Vice-Chancellors have already welcomed the Minister's proposals, though without wishing to be too cynical, one suspects these 'welcomes' might come from institutions expected to survive the coming shake up.

More importantly, what are the likely drawbacks and benefits of this reorganisation? True, we apparently save a few VC salaries, but there must surely be more to it than that? Perhaps there are some small departments in different institutions that could deliver better programmes following a merger. And perhaps there are cost savings to be achieved through the provision of common services. I presume this is the sort of thing the Minister had in mind, but we shall have to wait and see how it all works out. As for drawbacks, some entire campuses might close, I imagine, so that for some students their local provision will no longer be available. Also, the sheer variety of HE provision across Wales might well be narrowed down, and some would certainly see that as a disadvantage of these changes.

And do these proposals for Wales have any implications for what might happen elsewhere in the UK? They are presumably being introduced now, at least in part, in anticipation of forthcoming large cuts in public spending that will follow on from the Government's recent budget announcements. Since these cuts will most likely apply across the whole country - for there's not yet any reason to expect particular regions to be especially favoured - the budetary position will be quite similar in Scotland and England to that expected in Wales. Hence higher education budgets, or the parts coming to institutions through the Funding Councils, are going to be cut back severely in the next few years, and the forthcoming rise in VAT will merely add to the pain (as most university activities are exempt from VAT, meaning that we do not pay VAT on our outputs, but we cannot reclaim the VAT paid on our inputs). At the moment it's hard to attach numbers to this miserable picture, but it would be (pleasantly) surprising if budgets were cut by less than 10% or so in due course.

So will there be fewer Vice-Chancellors (or Principals) elsewhere in the UK, or will we find other ways of adapting our institutions to meet the coming stormy conditions? For instance, we could develop activities that do not depend on Funding Council support, seek more research funding from UK, EU and commercial sources (though the market for such funds is extremely competitive), and possibly find ways of cutting core costs so that we can still deliver good programmes at a reduced per unit cost. These are all interesting possibilities, and I'm sure they will be pursued as vigorously as possible in the coming months and years. Most institutions will no doubt find ways of managing a path through this difficult period, and some will emerge all the better for it - as usual, my outlook tends to be fairly positive and optimistic. That said, it would not be surprising if we saw a few mergers and even the occasional institutional failure in the next few years. Hence in the end, I would have to say 'yes', there will be slightly fewer VCs in, say, five years' time than there are now. And while the Welsh Minister expects student numbers in Wales to be largely unchanged, I am less sure that that will be the case across the UK. More on that topic, however, in a later post.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Gap years: My early life as a baked beans tester

These days it is quite common, especially for those from better off families, for students to take a gap year before they commence their university studies. This is sometimes just travel to distant and exciting places, more often a mix of travel and work. For instance my son spent a school year teaching science at a remote secondary school in Guyana, and then travelled across South America, returning home just in time to start university. Such a venture required a massive fund raising effort by all the family to raise the funds to support his activity, plus further cash contributions, but the trip proved a huge success. I suppose this sort of thing is good for broadening horizons, teaching independence and promoting personal initiative, all very handy characteristics for life in general, and very helpful as preparation for a university-level degree programme.

In my day, however, by which I mean the mid-1960s, gap years were largely unknown, not least because hardly any families - and none that I knew personally - had the money to support such a thing. In those more austere days, taking a gap year might even have seemed a bit frivolous or self indulgent, whatever the putative benefits that might be claimed. So most people finished secondary school at the normal time, had the usual summer break, then went straight on to university. In my own case, things worked out rather better, as I learned of my acceptance at Cambridge just before Christmas 1963, but did not start as a student there until October 1964. Feeling rather overdosed on courses and exams at that time, I decided to leave school immediately. With support from one of my teachers, I found a job working as a mathematician for Reckitts, a large company based in my home town, Hull, and did that for nine months.

This was a truly amazing experience. For a start, it was nice to have a proper job when still just 17. And the job itself was both very varied and hugely educational. Let me explain what I mean. Much of the time, I worked in a large, open-plan noisy room alongside about eight other people, only the section manager having his own separate office. We did a wide range of statistical calculations and plotted various fancy charts, all the number crunching being done using electro-mechanical calculators. Once half a dozen of these calculators were clattering away, you could hardly hear yourself think. Before starting work I had never seen such machines, as when we did calculations at school we always used logarithm tables (I still have my old school tables, in fact), but it wasn't hard to learn how to use them. However, doing divisions was more of a challenge than the other arithmetical operations, as I recall. I also had to learn a good deal of basic statistics as we had never done that at school and I wanted to understand what we were doing. To help me learn a little more about 'modern' calculating, I enrolled at my local technical college to do a course in numerical methods - and there we used even more primitive calculators, entirely mechanical ones operated by setting various levers and turning a crank handle.

As a sideline to the main work I was doing, I joined a panel that was engaged in testing all the available brands of baked beans, supposedly so that Reckitts could 'design' their own super-duper brand that would sweep the market. I don't think they ever succeeded, but it was fun to be part of the process for a while. For each tasting session we had to complete a short questionnaire asking for our overall views about the product (and, of course, we tested blind - we were not told which brand we were consuming), plus questions about colour, shape, size, sweetness, and probably other features that I no longer recall. Data from hundreds of these questionnaires was then used to perform some sort of principal components analysis (though I don't recall how this was done without a computer to help), the notion being that the first component from this analysis defined the 'ideal' baked bean. Well, I'm not so sure about that!

Aside from these relatively 'routine' tasks, I spent a lot of time on a personal project assigned to me by the head of the department. This was to develop some sales forecasting models and write a computer program to compute sales forecasts for a few dozen of Reckitts' diverse product lines. Before then I had never seen a computer, and it turned out that I was to use the Hull University computer - yes, they only had one at that time, an Elliott 803 (see picture). It was not very powerful, input and output consisted of reels of punched paper tape, and it was massive, filling much of a bungalow next to the University campus.

To perform this task I had to read a fair bit of technical material on sales forecasting, seasonal adjustment, and related matters as I knew nothing about forecasting when the project began. That was pretty interesting, and sometimes quite challenging, but it was nothing compared to the delights of learning my first programming language, Elliott autocode I think it was called. No one else in the office knew the language, so I had to teach myself. Nowadays it would be considered a terrible language - but it worked, and did the job I needed. Once I got started, and typed up my first programs onto paper tape, then typed data onto another reel of tape, I would cycle across Hull two or three times each week to use the University computer. No multi-tasking in those days, so I would have to wait until the computer was free; then I typed into the main keyboard a few machine code instructions telling the computer to read my first paper tape, and off we went. Once done, the computer spewed out a mass of paper tape, and I could finally see my results when this was fed into a teleprinter. Usually, the result was 'program failed', with little indication as to why; computers were not user friendly then. After many attempts, I started to get decent output in the form of some nice tables, and was able to finish my period at Reckitts by writing a short report for my boss.

So, that was my gap year, a wonderful and varied experience. It was really lucky to have such a chance.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Degrees - How much do we tell our students?

Having written about graduation in my last posting, it occurred to me to take a look at my original degree certificate from my maths degree at Cambridge (graduation in 1967). While it did state that I was now a Bachelor of Arts, it mentioned neither the subject of the degree, nor the class. Nor do I have any other documentation, such as a trancript, to confirm what I did and what my results were back then. In those days, too, it didn't really occur to any of us that we ought to be getting more information - and if we had dared ask, I imagine the result would have been a quiet chat with the Senior Tutor over a glass of sherry. In fact, when I think about it, I realise that in my three years at Cambridge I never received the marks or any other feedback for any of the examinations I took, except to be told that I had passed each year, and at the end that I had a first class degree. If I now needed to prove this for some reason, I expect I would have to go back to my old college and ask them to consult their records.

I then realised that I don't have my degree certificates from Oxford at all, because when I completed the relevant programmes (BPhil and then DPhil in economics) I never attended a degree ceremony, and never arranged for the certificates to be sent to me - an omission I now rather regret. So this week I belatedly approached Oxford to find out whether I could now get my certificates, nearly 40 years late. According to their rules, it appears that I am out of luck. However, I can be sent a formal letter confirming that I have earned the relevant degrees, and this I have now requested; I'll be interested to see what the letter actually says. Shortly, therefore, I should at least have some documentary evidence of my qualifications.

Interestingly, though, I have managed to go through an entire career - briefly in industry, mostly in higher education - without once being asked to provide any evidence of my qualifications. My claims about degrees were always believed, and luckily I'm not dishonest; no one has ever been deceived. Yet nowadays, my understanding is that employers routinely expect to see evidence of job applicants' qualifications when they go for a job. For academic jobs in the university, for instance, applicants are certainly expected to produce degree certificates and the like. What this means is that applicants are apparently less trusted than they were in the past, possibly because there have actually been a few reported cases of folk pretending to have qualifications that they did not. That said, it does seem a shame that in yet one more area of life, old fashioned trust in people's basic integrity has gone out the window.

Nowadays, both our students and their future employers expect to see far more information about their performance than was the norm in my day. Not only do they receive a degree certificate which, unlike my own, does mention little details like the subject of study and class of degree, but graduates are also sent a detailed transcript listing the various courses they have taken and the grades awarded. For us this is a relatively new practice, but in the US it has already been standard for some decades. In this sense, we're merely catching up.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

New Graduates - Our main 'output'

People often ask me, 'what do universities produce?' This time of year is the best for answering such questions, since in many of our towns and cities our principal 'output' is highly visible. It takes the form of our numerous new graduates, usually begowned in styles that correspond to their university and to the degree they are receiving, and usually accompanied by doting parents, other relatives and friends. For, of course, producing graduates is our main function, and it is both traditional and appropriate to mark the graduation with proper ceremony and pride.

At degree ceremonies, the Vice-Chancellor (or Principal, in Scotland) heads an academic procession into the hall, everyone formally dressed and very colourful. Then after a short introduction, the degrees are awarded. The main challenge at this stage is reading the graduands' names - representing dozens of countries - correctly, and it is usually a Head of School or Dean who gets the short straw. Each new graduand shakes hands with the Principal and then receives his/her certificate which states the subject and class of degree. As part of the ceremony an honorary degree or two is usually presented, these going to a wide range of people eminent in their respective fields. One of the senior academic staff is generally invited to present the hororary graduand by making a short speech about his/her life and accomplishments - this is something I have done on occasion when there has been a graduand in one of my areas of interest. At the end of the degree ceremony, the Principal also generally delivers a speech, a mix of thanking various people (including the graduates' families), congratulating the new graduates (and encouraging them to keep in touch), and sometimes commenting on current government policy towards the universities.

Graduation is typically followed by a reception and, weather permitting, strawberries and cream in an attractive part of the campus. All very British! But this part of the occasion also gives the academic and other staff chance to meet some of our students' parents and other family members, which is nice; and lots of terrible photos are taken, which is OK but less nice.

In most universities these days, degree ceremonies are conducted wholly in English. But when my son graduated from Cambridge a couple of years ago I was amused to discover that everything was still conducted in Latin, as it had been when I graduated there. Actually, not quite everything, as there was one short announcement in English at the start, namely, 'would everyone please ensure that their mobile phones are switched off.' Perhaps there isn't a Latin word for 'mobile phone' - I wonder. Otherwise, the procedure wasn't very different from most other universities.

Once our new graduates have their degrees, it is commonly assumed that universities pretty much shut down for the summer, as if all the academics are then free to enjoy a three month holiday in the sun. Sadly, this has never been the case despite widespread and popular misconceptions to the contrary. For in the summer we generally get busy with the other main part of our academic 'output', namely research. And if we're not doing that we're preparing new courses, updating old ones, and doing all the administrative work needed to prepare for the next academic year. All in all, I've rarely experienced a period in my academic life when there was any shortage of things to be done.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The other side of the pond

In keeping with my view that we in the UK need to be looking further afield when seeking ideas to help us reform higher education, I've recently been taking a look at some fascinating new books on American universities. One of these books is by Robert Zemsky, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, published in 2009 by Rutgers University Press. Zemsky was a member of Margaret Spelling's 2005 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, but apparently only signed the final report with some reluctance. His book is, in a sense, his account of what the Commission ought to have said.

Given this background, he spends some time reviewing some of the current debates in US higher education, as well as the Commission's own findings and recommendations. The Commission sought to focus on four areas, namely access, affordability, accountability and quality, but Zemsky argues that instead of providing constructive ways forward for US universities this focus merely provided critics with lots of ammunition. The result was little or no reform, and a loss of credibility for the Commission. However, the Commission's work did provide a starting point for more positive lines of thinking. Thus Zemsky highlights a couple of concerns that are highly relevant for the UK, too, when he argues (pp124, 125):
'First, we must understand why so many socioeconomically disadvantaged students start but do not complete their college education. ... Second, the nation will have to cast a much wider net when thinking about how to control costs and limit price increases.'
Turning to his positive advice, Zemsky is keen to move beyond lots of issues that people think are problems but where reform (in his view) is next to impossible - e.g. a topic that has little UK resonance, he urges the reader not to be concerned about the big money sports in US universities. Instead, he suggests three key areas around which feasible reforms can be constructed. These are: learning; attainment; and money. Thus (p202):
'Higher education will have to rethink what it means to be a learning enterprise, including the role the new electronic technologies and insights from the neurosciences have to play in recasting what happens in the classroom, laboratory, and library'
As regards attainment, the key is to find ways of enabling students in secondary schools to reach a point where they are better prepared for college-level education. And last, university funding in the US is too dependent on tax breaks and unstable credit markets, with considerable lack of clarity about pricing and the underlying cost structures.

All this, I think, offers us a good deal of food for thought on this side of the pond.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Changes are on the way

This week David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science in the new Coalition Government, made a thought-provoking speech at Oxford Brookes University (follow this link to see the text). After setting out some background information and noting the high quality of research produced by our universities - second only to the United States according to international surveys - he drew attention to what he saw as 'a couple of weaknesses in our HE system.'

His first point, expressed extremely mildly I thought, was the observation that 'excellent teaching is not universal.' Now, when I see mild statements like this in reports from the World Bank or IMF (International Monetary Fund), which I'm more used to, I know to read between the lines, preferably armed with a bit of independent knowledge of the country concerned. Thus when the Fund suggests that monetary policy could usefully be strengthened in some country, or that the exchange rate regime could be more efficient, they tend to mean that these policies are utter disasters and need urgent attention to fix them. So in our UK higher education context, what might Mr Willetts have meant? He did go on to say that our system lacks incentives for institutions to pay attention to good teaching and mentioned recent student surveys that reveal some dissatisfaction with teaching.

Then he moved on to his second point, the financial model under which higher education operates - and here I should make clear that he was mostly referring to England, since Scottish universities come under the devolved administration and the funding model is no longer quite the same as that in England. He claimed that the English financial model suffered from inflexibility, and had 'no room to reward excellent teaching.' While we await the outcome of Lord Browne's review of university funding later in the year (there was little more in the speech on funding), it is worth trying to understand better what the Minister might have meant here. For at first sight, the claim that we can't reward teaching doesn't make a lot of sense, as far as I can see.

After all, once universities receive their money from the Funding Councils - for teaching, research, and anything else - they are largely free to allocate it internally as they see fit. Consequently, of course universities could most certainly reward excellent teaching, if only they chose to do so. Perhaps what the Minister meant, and expressed quite delicately, therefore, was that not enough institutions are making such a choice, and that far more should be doing so. That at least is my initial guess as to what he might have meant as regards teaching.

The Minister was concerned about the information available to students about courses, university life, and more concretely about the career options that degree courses led on to. He plans to make English universities publish so called 'employability statements' to help fill this last gap. On the face of it this sounds like a neat idea, but I think it would be too easy to fake a good story for HEFCE and the institutional website (the usual institutional game playing) unless there is an insistence on publishing some very well defined (and hard to fiddle) quantitative indicators. For instance, data on the fraction of graduates in work or further study six months after graduation are already collected and published, so presumably the Minister thinks this is insufficient and would like more detail. What sort of detail is not yet clear.

Last, Mr Willetts was clearly having a go at squaring the circle of getting more people into HE while not imposing more of a burden on public funds. His idea, floated for discussion, was to emulate something like the University of London external student model. This involves students either working alone or at some approved FE college taking courses leading to a degree, where the actual exams (and any other assessment) are set and marked by London University. So it is almost like a way of franchising the 'London University' product to a range of other colleges. The idea is that it could widen access, save some public money (as studying at an FE college is cheaper than at a conventional university) and give more students a reputable degree at the end. The model effectively separates course delivery/teaching from examining and awarding degrees, a fascinating notion. The interesting question here is which universities might wish to franchise their degrees in this way, and how they would do it. What would be the costs and benefits for the degree-awarding institution, and how would the associated FE colleges be supported? These financial details are as yet ill defined, but I imagine that lots of university finance offices will already be thinking through a variety of possible cost models.

It's good that the new Minister is prepared to contemplate new thinking about the universities, even though many details are still to be worked out. The next few months promise to be both scary - because we all know budget cuts are coming - and exciting - because there are new ideas in the air. Hopefully our university sector will be able to cope with the cuts and manage the coming changes in a way that preserves the sector's established strengths and delivers outstanding services to our students.

Meanwhile, up here in Scotland the picture seems even less clear than that in England, as our students pay no up front fees, the Scottish government is opposed to fees in principle, and yet public sector spending is set to be squeezed just as it is in England. The only concrete suggestion I have seen for funding Scotland's universities was a suggestion made in the Scotsman newspaper this week, namely that they should seek to build up endownments. Great idea, and in time it might be the way to go, but it's not going to happen at all quickly. For now, therefore, we might be left trying to adapt English ideas and models to Scottish circumstances.

Perhaps we should be having a separate Scottish debate on organising and funding our higher education system in the difficult times that lie ahead.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Teaching - Supporting students

When a university is famous, it is usually so as a result of its internationally renowned research. However, for most universities, including my own, the main business necessarily has to do with the teaching we do, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, since it is through this core activity that we receive the bulk of our funding. Hence it is vital that we take teaching seriously and do it well. This is important for existing students, so they get good degrees and leave us with strongly positive feelings about the institution where they have studied; such outcomes also put our graduates in a good position to follow interesting careers. Moreover, gaining a reputation for good, caring teaching can also help us recruit future students, esesential for the continuing vitality of the university.

So what does it mean to be a good teaching institution, and to take care of our students?

Nowadays it seems to mean a great deal. First and foremost, we need good degree programmes, well taught and presented in a lively, interesting way. This, we have in abundance, I think, though of course what we teach is constantly under review and being updated. Then, as an institution, we need to show that we offer a good physical teaching environment, well resourced and with high quality facilities, and at least as good as our main competing institutions. This, too, my own university does pretty well these days. And as an added extra, we even have a lovely campus which is beautifully maintained, and some very good quality residences for those students who live on the campus. So far so good.

The last aspect of good teaching is probably the hardest, and has to do with our diverse personal contacts with students, whether these involve personal discussions about essays or larger projects; providing prompt and helpful feedback on students' academic work; giving advice about academic, personal and financial matters; responding to questions in lectures; responding to student e-mails (the main means of communication now); being available at predictable times for meetings with students; and probably others that don't come to mind as I write this. This field is hard to manage because the types of contact are so varied, and because it can involve such a big time commitment both from academics and support staff. But in terms of the sort of impression that our students get of our commitment to teaching, I suspect it is at least as important as the formal teaching that we do, possibly more so (especially for the more advanced students who tend to need more contact).

Luckily, I think my university does an amazingly good job in fostering good practice when it comes to our contacts with students. In some areas there are formal policies in place - either at university or School level, but in other areas we simply rely on the professionalism of staff at all levels to provide the responses and support that students need. My impression is that this part of our university system works really well - it stands up well both in national and international comparison, in my experience.

Taking all this together, we have a fairly complicated but effective system for delivering the 'teaching function' in my university, and I hope that we can hold onto it once public spending cuts start to feed through to the university sector in a serious way. Fingers crossed.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Form filling - where will it end?

Universities are about the joys of learning and discovery, the creation and transmission of knowledge, and guiding students along their own personal educational journeys. At times, the research might go unexpectedly slowly, ideas might not come when they are most needed, but there are always students who need support, and watching them develop and mature during a degree programme is a wonderful process. This always keeps me going until the research starts to go better again.

Increasingly, though, our universities seem to be getting themselves bogged down in endless form filling - some of it mildly sensible, some of it quite silly, in my totally unbiased view. Let me just mention a few examples from my own recent experience.

First, research. A couple of years ago I secured a research grant to carry out a study of some development issues in Ghana (this was a small part of a much larger programme), and when my university first had confirmation of the funding, the very next e-mail I received said, quite bluntly, 'Paul, now you have this funding, you'll need to fill in a couple of forms'. Needless to say, I refused, and simply said that if the university wished to benefit from this funding it should not be hassling me with additional form filling. I heard no more about these forms, and still don't know what they were about. It evidently hasn't mattered too much, as the research was duly done.

Next, travel. Of course, we have to be accountable for what we do and how we spend public money, since we don't want to run into the kind of public opprobrium that MPs encountered in the past couple of years when some rather lax practices came to light. But in my own university we now have to fill in a form to get permission to spend, then complete an expenses form accompanied by receipts once the particular trip has been completed. The system works quite well, to be fair, but it does seem fairly heavy in terms of form filling. Moreover, each time we travel (especially overseas), we're supposed to complete some sort of risk assessment form for the university insurers. Personally, I've managed to avoid filling in these latter forms by always having my own travel insurance so I don't depend on the university.

Last, meetings with students. Whether at postgraduate or undergraduate level, it has always been accepted good practice to keep rough notes of significant meetings with students, especially when supervising dissertations, projects and the like. My own practice these days is to print out one of the recent e-mails between me and the student concerned, and then to scribble some notes onto that e-mail once the next supervision meeting has taken place. This rough and ready approach has served me well for many years. It's quick, simple and effective. However, now we are supposed to record such meetings on standard forms and even lodge copies in the School or departmental office. This seems to me way over the top, and largely a waste of valuable time. In fact the only reason I can see for doing this has nothing to do with keeping track of students' academic progress per se, but is more about ensuring there is a good paper trail in place in case some student decides to mount an appeal against their degree results. This is not a good reason for so much form filling, and I have not followed this new practice myself.

In fact by now the reader might perceive that I am not always a terribly cooperative academic. Where form filling is concerned, this is completely true, and is indeed one the reasons why I eventually agreed an early retirement deal with my university. On the other hand, where strictly academic matters are concerned, such as reading a colleague's new paper, advising colleagues about formulating a research grant proposal, or advising students about possible career paths, I like to think that I am closer to the other end of the scale - very cooperative, very collegiate.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Are academic standards rising or falling? And should we care?

At this time of the year we often discover that more and more of our students are graduating with a good honours degree, meaning an upper second or a first class degree. The share of such degrees in the total number of graduates has gone up over the past 2-3 decades, while the total student population itself has also risen massively. The question is, does the rising share of 'good' degrees mean that our students are on average better than they used to be; or that our teaching has steadily improved in quality and effectiveness; or perhaps that academic standards have declined somewhat? How can we tell which of these stories best fits the facts?

As an 'oldie', someone who has been teaching in universities since 1971, my instinct is to go for the third explanation, partly because many of our students seem to me less well prepared for university than they used to be - we never used to teach remedial English and maths, for instance; and partly because the incentives we face tend to push institutions towards awarding ever more good degrees. For all UK institutions, while pretending that published university league tables are 'unimportant', attach considerable significance to the outcome, and if they do well - i.e. get a high ranking and/or an improved ranking - do not hesitate to use it in their recruitment publicity. And one of the indicators that figures in most league tables is precisely this fraction of 'good' degrees mentioned above. Institutions always say they want to maintain academic standards, but they also want to do well in league tables, so you can imagine what happens in practice.

Now, it may well be the case that our teaching has also improved, with better training, more use of modern methods including ICT, and more diverse assessment methods, but personally I remain to be convinced that this has made such a big difference. Moreover, our restructured degree programmes and modularised teaching, while offering greater flexibility to students, has given rise to a culture of assessment by averaging marks across a huge range of courses. Averaging, of course, tends to push marks towards the middle, making it harder to fail, also harder to excel - but to counter that effect at the upper end (because we do want to give some firsts), we're all encouraged to mark quite generously at the top of the scale. The net effect of these different practices and pressures is to nudge average marks upwards.

The system of external examiners in the UK is supposed to confer some objectivity on all this by ensuring that standards in any given institution are not out of line with those elsewhere. But the examiners themselves come from universities experiencing just the same pressures, so without any ill intent or corruption they are able to confirm most proposed degree results with a clear conscience. Thus gradually improving outcomes are built into the system.

In response to these trends, there is a growing feeling in the UK that degree results don't mean what they used to, and it is being suggested that we should move over to a more complex US-type system, in which students don't receive a formal degree class at all (except perhaps for a few outstanding students). Instead, they would receive a detailed transcript, summarised in a GPA (grade point average). I imagine this might be helpful to potential employers of our graduates, but I'm not sure that it deals with the problem discussed here, to do with the 'quality of a degree'.

But how far should we be concerned about that? Two aspects of the question are worth highlighting here. First, we like to think that our degrees provide a signal to employers regarding the quality of our graduates, but employers frequently complain that many graduates are not well prepared for the world of work and lack many of the skills one would have expected them to acquire through a degree programme. There is a suggestion here that our degree classification system does not work quite as well as it allegedly did in the past, though hard evidence is quite difficult to come by.

Second, there is the issue of international comparisons. We like to think in the UK that we have a rather good university system, and we probably still do in many respects. But none of the incentives mentioned above pays any attention to the wider world. Yet we are operating in a highly competitive world economy in which many competing countries - such as Singapore, China, the US, South Korea, among others - are putting huge emphasis on raising standards in their universities, and here in the UK we hardly seem to notice this. Much of our system seems to me rather insular and inward looking, and as a result it often seems excessively complacent. It's high time we looked outwards for guidance on the academic standards we need to achieve for Britain to do well in the 'knowledge economy'.