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'.

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