Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 5

Submission from Professor Alan Ryan[6]

  I'm sorry to bore you with my collected works on this topic, but they might make a change from "standards have collapsed" on the one side and "oh no they haven't" on the other.

I've been teaching for the past forty-six years, and one thing that is obvious is that there has been no general deterioration in the mental quality of students at the "top" end of HE. I doubt there is any anywhere else. There has also been, if anything, a considerable diminution in sheer idleness, and an agreeable reduction in the number of people who come to university purely for the social life. That is especially true of the "top" end of the system, where all the evidence is that students are worked much harder than they are at the unselective universities. But, I doubt that much above 5-10 percent of students anywhere are wholly wasting their time. [I don't deny that students at unselective universities may have had terrible training in good work habits and that they may find even the limited amount of work they are required to do very demanding. But that is like the elderly and the overweight running for a bus and finding it harder work than when they were eighteen and four stone lighter; just as we can't run, so a lot of students doing essentially remedial courses can't work properly. It is not a moral failing, but it is a problem.]

  What there has been—and the evidential basis is pretty good for this claim—is something interesting, though mildly depressing. Secondary education takes students less far than it once did; language A levels where students never have to translate from English into, say, French, German, Latin, Greek mean they arrive knowing the language much less well than if they had been put through the mill of unseens, proses, dictation. This isn't simply a matter of content; while it is true that students read for A level what they would once have read for O level, in many of the sciences you learn things for GCSE that somebody got a Nobel Prize for twenty years ago, and nobody had heard of twenty years earlier than that. But it is a retreat from the idea that students are being continuously brought to the point where they can deal with their teachers as their intellectual peers. [This has nothing to do with the social easiness of schools; they are in that respect much nicer places than they were; but the intellectual relationships are more rather than less hierarchical than they were.]

  The university scene is very complicated; thirty years ago, when the CNAA vetted degrees in polytechnics, there were few 2.1s and very few firsts. If anything, the intake was better trained before arrival than it is now, so it easy to think that dumbing down has occurred. That may not have happened in a straightforward way; the CNAA kept the polytechnics on a tight leash and courses were pretty much identical to their university equivalents, so you'd expect the polytechnics to produce a lot of lower seconds and the like, but to have some astonishing students who had slipped through the net. The subsequent history is one of adjusting courses to what students could do rather than the more difficult task of adjusting students to what one supposes the discipline demands. [Another fact of some interest is that the idea that an academic training is a discipline has very much fallen by the wayside.] It's a safe bet that the dropout rate if you put a Wolverhampton first year through an Imperial first year would be close to one hundred percent. It would be an experiment of extreme cruelty, and would prove nothing beyond the fact that people can't do what they have never been taught to do nor have been socialised into the necessary work habits to master. Academic work is much like training for cross-country running; building up stamina takes hard work and persistence. So, some of what people complain of is that more people do degrees that don't demand much in the way of mathematical or linguistic skill, and are assessed by methods that place little weight on internalising a substantial body of knowledge, and place not much more weight on displaying analytical skills in handling what information they do have. I myself share that view. I'd like to mark the line between secondary and tertiary in these terms.

  At the "top" end of the system, there has been a process—and this is largely the fault of the QAA, which encapsulates the bad ideas that New Labour uncritically bought from Mrs Thatcher—that amounts not to dumbing down but to dumbing into the middle. The mechanism is boringly simple: the QAA thinks in terms of "course delivery" and "course providers" rather than disciplines and teachers. Its notion of how to square academic freedom with quality assurance is to avoid making any judgment about the content of courses—which allows Oxford to teach theology and Westminster complementary medicine—but to insist on a particular form of bureaucratic packaging; this means that a higher value is put on it being absolutely clear and predictable what a student will be told than is put on waking up their minds and seeing how far they can go if they are stretched. Lectures are then matched to syllabi, classes to lectures, and examinations to both. This means that the ditzier sort of student is saved from his errors, but the most interesting is forced to turn her intelligence to handing the examiners what she knows they want. It is impossible to regret that students have a fair opportunity to know what they are going to have to do for their final examinations, but it is certainly possible to regret the resulting compression in the scale of assessment. In a place like Oxford, where anyone who remains awake and is tolerably well-organised, can get a 2.1—as they should—the effect is that lots of students gets firsts who in essence have put in a methodical, well-organised, high 2.1 performance; but it would be absurd to cut the number, since we have asked them to do a particular job and they have done it impeccably. The problem is that we haven't asked them to do something more interesting.

  But this is what one should expect when Mrs Thatcher gives way to Tony Blair; like her, he was a genius at political manipulation but a person with no intellectual interests whatever. The chain of reasoning is simple: There is no market discipline in education and it is hard to see how there could be—the process of eliminating poor or merely competent intellectual performance in favour of the good, the surprising, and the dazzlingly clever is much slower and more imperfect than the process that eliminates Austin Allegros in favour of Volkswagen Golfs. So anyone who doesn't trust teachers to transmit their knowledge to students tries to manage the production process as distinct from relying on the market to assess the output—which one would not do with BMW or VW. Scrutinising inputs is a very poor substitute for a proper assessment of outputs. The way we do it is manifestly flawed; one can check whether departments follow QAA guidelines, but it takes thirty years to discover whether anyone produced by a given institution has contributed anything intellectually interesting to the world. It is, however, the world of Tony Blair, "cascading targets," and Peter Williams. Your committee cannot repudiate its masters for all the usual and perfectly respectable reasons. If it could do so, it should, but I don't see how you can.

  I think the expansion of higher education has on the whole been a very good thing. Too much of it has been remedial secondary education passed off as something else, but it's better to have that than nothing, even though it's expensive and inefficient. Nor do I think that more means worse; it's certainly true that in any field where you can rank performance more means that you go further down the pool of talent—the slowest runner in the London Marathon is a lot slower than the last runner to finish in the Olympics, for instance. Mostly, more only means different. But if the question is whether the HE regime instituted by New Labour is in some respects—not, for the most part, at the level of research—anti-intellectual, the answer is plainly yes. I append a few pieces to amuse you and perhaps the committee.[7]

December 2008

6   New College, Oxford. Back

7   Not printed. Back

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