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

Memorandum 14

Submission from Professor Geoffrey Alderman


    — Over the past twenty or so years there has been a systemic failure to maintain appropriate academic standards in British higher education.— The blame for this lies primarily with university chief executives, who have, in general, been willing to subordinate academic standards to their preoccupation with league-tables and "market-share."— The Quality Assurance Agency has failed to halt this process because of its mistaken belief that the maintenance of standards appropriate to higher education can be achieved through a compliance culture and the standardisation of procedures.

    — The QAA needs to be radically refocused so that its processes address academic standards, and the resource decisions that underpin them.

    — The current situation, whereby universities enjoy degree-awarding powers in perpetuity, is insupportable.

    — Where an institution is found, by the QAA, to be derelict in its supreme duty to maintain standards (as judged by experienced senior academics from other institutions), financial penalties should be levied, followed if necessary by the partial or complete withdrawal of the authority to award degrees.

    — The External Examiner system has broken down. It should either be radically reformed or abolished.

    — A separate, urgent inquiry is necessary as to why so many British students, even with good A-Level grades, are quite unprepared for degree-level study.


  1.  I am by background a teacher and researcher in the broad fields of modern British history and politics, and have over 40 years' experience of higher education worldwide. I currently hold an endowed chair at the University of Buckingham, having previously held senior positions in the University of London (where I was Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Standards) and Middlesex University (where I was Pro Vice-Chancellor for Quality & Standards). Between 2000 and 2006 I was a senior university administrator with American universities. I have also researched and published extensively—both in the UK and the USA—in fields allied to the maintenance of quality and standards in higher-education. My full CV and bibliography are available on my website: .

2.  In my view, over the past twenty or so years there has been a systemic failure to maintain appropriate academic standards in British higher education, with the result that these standards have measurably declined.[20] I place the primary responsibility for this at the door of university chief executives (generally vice-chancellors), who, even if they have scholarly backgrounds, no longer see themselves as academic leaders, but rather as business managers intent on achieving "market share." In this quest, academic standards are viewed as subordinate and, hence, dispensable. In particular, vice-chancellors have permitted and indeed encouraged the decline in academic standards in the desperate search for (a) increased income from "full cost" fee-paying international students, (b) more favourable student retention rates and (c) high or higher positions in various "rankings" or "league tables" published by a variety of media.

  3.  This need not have happened. Based on my experience in both the public and private higher-education sectors, for-profit and not-for-profit, on both sides of the Atlantic, I must record my view that "marketisation" can, if professionally managed, result in more student contact hours, not less. At the wholly private University of Buckingham, for instance, the academic year is longer, not shorter, nor has the volume of the curriculum been reduced—in some subjects such as law, which is of course professionally accredited, it couldn't be reduced, anyway. In the private sector there is more trust between students and staff, not less, and there is no greater pressure on standards than in the public sector. What is critical, however, is how staff react to this pressure. Here, leadership is crucial

  4.  Marketisation and league tables are here to stay. But a robust university management, genuinely jealous for its own reputation, will never allow them to dictate the terms upon which the university guards its academic standards. Part of the problem we currently face undoubtedly stems from the gross underfunding of most of UK higher education. Non-EU students attract full-cost fees, and have—inevitably—become a lucrative source of much-needed cash. Failing or expelling a non-EU student can have serious knock-on implications as the word gets out. In the modern, mass higher education system, it seems, there must be prizes for all, because the student is the customer and the customer must walk away with something for her/his money.

  5.  The decline in academic standards has been facilitated by weak or non-existent surveillance of them. On 17 July 2008 the Select Committee heard evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. It is worth emphasising that the QAA is, in fact, a quality assurance body; its remit does not actually extend, currently, to the direct scrutiny of standards. It is true that the Agency insists that its mission is to work with higher education institutions "to define academic standards". But it does not do so, and never has. By "quality" I mean the totality of the student learning experience—the learning resources, the pastoral support and so on. You can in fact have poor "quality" in an institution that enforces and whose students reach high standards. Conversely, you can—and all too often do—have poor standards in an institution brimming with support mechanisms. The current methodology of the QAA is compliance-driven. Its approach is underpinned by the belief that high standards will be maintained through standardisation of procedures.[21] This approach is false and dangerous.

  6.  Academic standards are in decline in many British universities. Students who would formerly have been failed their degrees are being passed, and students who would formerly have been awarded very respectable Lower Seconds are now being awarded Upper Seconds and even Firsts. Students—I mean British students as well as students from overseas—are being admitted to commence their studies with levels of English so poor that universities are having to run remedial English courses to ensure that new entrants possess at least a basic level of literacy at the outset of their studies. Cheating is rampant, encouraged in part by lenient penalties.

  7.  Part of the evidence for this is statistical. Over the past decade the number of Firsts awarded by UK universities has more than doubled, whilst the UK undergraduate population has increased by less than a half. The standard exit qualification that most UK students obtain is now the Upper Second—the Lower Second is an endangered species and the Third is on the verge of extinction. A survey recently carried out the Higher Education Academy suggested that of 9,000 or so cases of plagiarism recorded last year, only 143 resulted in expulsion. The survey also pointed to an alarming variation in penalties imposed. In many mainly post-1992 "new" universities, lecturers are required to take national, ethnic and even social backgrounds into account when punishing cheaters.

  8.  Part of the evidence is empirical. In recent years, as part of an ongoing investigation into the decline of academic standards in UK higher education, I have collected evidence of the often intolerable managerial pressure that has been brought to bear on academic staff to pass students who should fail and to "massage" students into higher exit qualifications. Here are a few examples:

    — In 2000 the Vice-Chancellor of the University of York despatched a memorandum to all his university's external examiners pointing out that the proportion of firsts awarded in economics at York had fallen in comparison with York's competitor institutions. This was a thinly veiled attempt to "lean" on them to award more firsts.[22]

    — In 2007 Paul Buckland, professor of environmental archaeology at Bournemouth University, resigned in protest at the decision of university authorities that some 14 students whom he—and a formal examinations board—had judged to have failed a course should none the less be deemed to have passed it. In so doing, the university authorities appear to have endorsed the view of a senior official that students should have been able to pass the course merely on the basis of lecture notes, without doing the required reading. Earlier this year an Employment Tribunal ruled that Professor Buckland's resignation amounted to constructive dismissal.[23]

    — In July 2008 The Times revealed that an "academic standards manager" at Manchester Metropolitan University had written to staff in mathematics and computing encouraging them to award more firsts and upper seconds so that the university might be seen in a more favourable light compared with rival institutions.[24]

    — A former senior lecturer in the Business School at [***] has described to me, in some detail, how pressure was put on her to pass illiterate students: "When I was asked to mark examination papers of undergraduates, intense pressure was put on me to reverse my marking, that had failed about 75% of one cohort. My argument was simply: if they can't construct a sentence, how can they construct an argument? The course leader reluctantly agreed with this & said that he was under pressure to recruit "almost anyone who walked through the door". When I said that the scripts would never get past an external examiner I was told that only an internal 2nd marking process applied & they didn't go externally."[25]

    — A senior academic at [***] University reports as follows: "Last summer [2007] I marked a batch of work which at the time I considered to be the worst batch I'd seen in 20 years. I failed a number, and overall the grades were not good. On two occasions subsequently I have been pressurized to "revisit" the marks, because students complained, and because the marks for the module were "out of line" in comparison with other modules. I was even criticised for not giving "token credit" to failures. I refused to revisit the marks."[26]

    — A former external examiner in law at [***] University complains: "At [***] University, where until recently I was an External, the Externals are not permitted to alter marks or comment on individual scripts in any way. Their function is to comment merely on adherence to procedures. I complained about this repeatedly, to no avail. It's a disgraceful misuse of the external examining system."[27]

    — Another senior academic has described what happened when he acted as an external examiner at another institution in June 2008: "In my capacity as an external examiner, I attended an examination board yesterday. I had already made it clear that I did not agree with the marks which had been awarded in one of the modules (a number of scripts had been given first class marks for an answer that was almost totally wrong). These answers would have merited a fail (or at best a third class) grade at my own institution. I had three short meetings with numerous members of staff, but it was made absolutely clear to me that I had no authority to change the marks."[28]

  9.  Several themes emerge from this evidence (and I should perhaps add here that I could—alas -have filled this entire submission with examples of a kind similar to those reproduced above). Perhaps the most important is that the much-vaunted External Examiner system has broken down. It was once true that the academic judgment of an External Examiner was final. This is no longer the case, partly as a result of modularisation of degrees (rarely, nowadays, will one External Examiner have responsibility for an entire degree programme), and partly because Externals are now no more than procedural umpires. Additionally, the remuneration of Externals is a joke. The system itself either needs to be abolished (after all, the American HE system—the system that sustains Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc—manages without Externals) or requires a radical overhaul—perhaps involving the formal accreditation of Externals.

  10.  But to address the crisis in the External Examiner system would do no more than deal with one aspect of a problem which is, as I said at the outset of this Submission, systemic. Why is this?

  11.  No university in the UK is actually "accredited" as a degree-granting institution. Universities derive their authority to award degrees either from a Royal Charter or from an Act of Parliament. Such authority is—in practice- granted in perpetuity.[29] This state of affairs is insupportable. In the USA every legitimate university institution is accredited, and no accreditation—not even of the most prestigious institutions—lasts for more than ten years.[30]

  12.  All the evils that are being complained of occurred on the QAA's "watch". And it seems to me that the remit and focus of the QAA call for a radical rethink. The QAA needs to be given stronger powers (including the power to investigate standards at an institution even where its Vice Chancellor does not invite it in), a wider remit (so that it can investigate the all-important interactions that occur between resource allocation, marketing and academic decisions within institutions[31]), and greater independence (so that in reaching its decisions, it does not have to accommodate itself to the Government, the Funding Councils and/or the institutions). It is my belief that the best way of achieving this end is by reconstituting the QAA under the umbrella of a Royal Charter. Given that the sector clearly (but sadly) lacks the will to regulate itself, chartered status for the QAA strikes me as the next best option, which would confer on the Agency the independence it needs to go about its work without fear or favour.

  13.  With this reform in place, and given the inextricable relationship between resource allocation and management and academic integrity, the government and management audit functions that are currently the responsibility of the funding agencies should be transferred to the reconstituted QAA, whose audit reports would then routinely include judgments on the appropriateness of institutional fiscal management strategies vis-à-vis institutional academic ambitions. A precedent for this already exists in the QAA scrutiny of the governance and management of institutions or organisations applying for degree-awarding powers.

  14.  In the regime that I envisage, much of the "checklist" paraphernalia currently employed by the QAA (most notably, the mammoth Code of Practice and the anodyne Subject Benchmark Statements) could be safely jettisoned. We must dispose of the myth that degree standards are or ever can be comparable in a diverse, mass system. Instead we should concentrate on ensuring that every student reading for a degree at a British university receives a worthwhile award.

  15.  Accordingly, the QAA should abandon its attempt to enforce standardisation of quality-assurance processes. Large sections of its Code of Practice are redundant, and a waste of time. Instead, a reconstituted QAA should require institutions to publish their own processes (where they do not already do so), and, using panels of academic experts, should audit these against the goal of adherence to national norms (in terms of academic standards) as articulated by these specialists. This scrutiny must include the processes through which institutions determine the fitness of students to undertake particular courses of study. Institutions found to be derelict in their duty to enforce proper academic standards should (whether in the public or private sectors) be subject to financial penalties and, if necessary, the withdrawal of some or all of their degree-awarding powers.

  16.  I am aware that the evidence I have collected presents another issue, namely the question why so many university entrants, including many with good A level grades, are quite unprepared for degree level study. This grave matter merits, in my judgment, an urgent independent investigation.

  17.  I agree wholeheartedly with the view that the present degree classification system must be abandoned as soon as possible in favour of what the Burgess Committee has termed a "Higher Education Achievement Report", or some other way of recording students' learning achievements. But, to limit the temptations of league-table addicts[32], such reports must not contain anything approximating to a "grade-point average." Universities must be strongly discouraged from publishing any aggregated statistics based on these individual reports.

  18.  A more exacting regime, of the kind I have described above, might possibly cost more than the present quality assurance regime. However, there will be substantial savings from ending degree classification, and from having a more focussed (and much less bureaucratic) academic audit process. In my view this will be a small price to pay for re-establishing faith in the currency of the British degree, and for restoring international confidence in the quality of UK higher education and in the rigour of its academic standards.

December 2008

20   I find myself unable to agree, therefore, with the glib and unsupported assertion of Professor Paul Ramsden that "poor assessment practices … are no longer easily tolerated in any higher education institution": Paul Ramsden, The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience (2008), para.1.22: [ accessed 12 November 2008] Back

21   I therefore commend to the Select Committee the monograph published in 2004 by Dr Paul Greatrix (University of Warwick) entitled Dangerous Medicine: Problems with Assuring Quality and Standards in UK Higher Education (University of Warwick Press). Back

22   This incident was reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement at the time. Back

23   G. Alderman, "University standards under threat," Guardian Unlimited, 18 August 2008, accessible at: Back

24   The Times, 2 July 2008. The truth of this report was confirmed by a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University (Professor Kevin Bonnett) in conversation with me on the BBC Radio 4 programme "You and Yours," 18 November 2008. Back

25   [Footnote not reproduced] Back

26   [Footnote not reproduced] Back

27   [Footnote not reproduced] Back

28   [Footnote not reproduced] Back

29   My understanding-which the Select Committee will wish to confirm-is that degree-awarding powers conferred on "modern" Scottish institutions of higher education can be revoked, but not those conferred on HEIs in the rest of the United Kingdom, save by Act of Parliament or the "calling-in" of a Royal Charter. Back

30   It is true that in the USA withdrawal of accreditation need not automatically result in the loss of degree-awarding powers, which are conferred by the individual states of the Union. An American HE institution that loses its accreditation might still award degrees, but none of its students would be able to claim federal funds to support their studies, and in practice the degrees they were awarded would be valueless. Back

31   In the USA the periodic accreditation reports of the Regional [higher education] Accrediting Commissions routinely include sections on resource management and allocation, and on staff remuneration. Back

32   Such as Professor Rick Trainor, Principal of King's College London and currently President of Universities UK, who, welcoming the news in 2007 that KCL had risen 22 places (to number 24) in the Times Higher's World University Rankings, responded: "We take The Times Higher league table very seriously and I am extremely proud that King's is positioned so highly." [ , accessed 1 November 2008] Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009