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

Memorandum 30

Submission from Dr Rob Penhallurick[78]


  Main points:

    — This submission is concerned only with degree classification— Credentials and concerns of the writer

    — Examples of problems: consistency of grades, extenuating circumstances claims, plagiarism, MA schemes

    — Concluding summary

  1.  I make this brief submission specifically on the matter of degree classification and standards. It is not in any way exhaustive, but merely a short personal summary and illustration of issues. It arises out of concerns that I have on what I perceive to be evidence of relaxation of traditional standards in awarding grades and degrees in universities in England and Wales.

  2.  My credentials are as follows: I have worked in higher education since 1983, including a five-year spell in a Finnish university; I have had a good deal of involvement with the "quality" agenda; I took part in several audits (internal and as external auditor), and was on the list of QAA subject reviewers; I have been a head of department, and deputy head of school; I have been an external examiner at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I am also a parent, whose three children are, one by one, attending university.

  3.  My concerns derive from observations and lengthy experience. I do not refer to statistics, I refer to my experience. This means that my comments are, from a certain point of view, sensitive in nature, and could be linked to practice at certain institutions. I do not wish these comments to be taken as grievances against individual institutions, because (i) I believe the examples that I refer to are representative of common practice, and (ii) if I felt I had a grievance then I would pursue it at the local level first.

  4.  In summary, my belief is that a typical degree awarded in the Arts & Humanities (I cannot speak for other areas) is worth less than its equivalent of even five years ago, and certainly less than ten or twenty years ago. This is despite the proliferation of quality controls, some aspects of which, I believe, contribute to declining standards.

  5.  The UK university system has, over the last two decades especially, changed from an elite system to a mass system. This inevitably means that the intake to academic degrees has changed. Student numbers have risen considerably, and staff resources have become stretched. Departments no longer simply accept only the highest quality candidates. A highly developed quality assurance system has gradually been introduced. Its benefits are, in summary, a greater systematization and regularization of procedures. Its weaknesses are, in summary, that it masks falling standards, offering staff a refuge from rigorously and fairly applying their expert judgements on the quality of student work.

  6.  For example, one of the generally accepted axioms of the quality agenda is that delivery and assessment should be matched to the quality and character of intake. If a department or institution fails to do so it runs the risk of appearing to be out of step with what appears to happen in other institutions—it may appear to be awarding too few firsts, for example. Thus statistical comparisons become a major mechanism for "ensuring" consistency of quality. This can occur at cross-institutional level or it can occur down to departmental level, where statistical analysis allows comparison of marks across modules. However, what this means is that, no matter what the level of intake in any given year, the spread of results will remain the same from year to year. This promotes a fallacious understanding of standards. As a consequence, over time, standards are eroded. In the Arts and Humanities, there are clear, easily identified requirements for a good piece of written academic work, which can be summarized as "What grades mean". Thus, for example, a 1st-class piece should, amongst other things, be free of linguistic errors, and should contain excellent specialist knowledge and a clear line of argument. A piece that is poorly written and shows no specialist knowledge should get a very low fail. These are requirements that can be consistently applied, down the years, whereas matching assessment and grading to intake leads to varying standards, down the years, but gives the appearance of consistency. At the lower end especially, there is a growing reluctance to use the full range of marks. Staff are not encouraged to stand by their expert judgement. Institutions fear student appeals more than they worry about compromising staff judgements.

  7.  Another example is the misuse of "extenuating" or "mitigating circumstances" or "impaired performance" claims. It is absolutely correct that students who experience difficulties should receive full and proper support, in order to complete their work, by means of extended deadlines and such. The modularization of degrees and a much greater emphasis on coursework rather than final exams means that the numbers of cases of personal and other difficulties affecting students' work has increased enormously. Exam boards as a matter of course are told of such cases. A disturbing trend is for students' marks to be adjusted (sometimes within regularized limits) upon the acceptance of an extenuating circumstances claim. The exam board is then asked, in effect, to ratify an imagined mark—that is, to imagine how that student would have performed if things had been different. This—as I believe boards are discovering—is a road with no end.

  8.  Plagiarism, it is accepted, is a widespread problem. Institutions need clear and firm procedures for dealing with unfair practice. However, a worrying trend is for institutions to allow students who have been found guilty of plagiarism to resit the modules concerned, a procedure which treats cheating in the same way as honest failure. Possibly, this stems from a fear of legal action, as students who perpetrate plagiarism often claim ignorance as a defence.

  9.  At MA level, universities have been under pressure to recruit more students, particularly non-EU students who pay much more in fees. The result is that new MA schemes have been introduced whose major advantage (to institutions) is their cost-effectiveness. Schemes can be introduced which share modules with other schemes, thereby minimizing resourcing problems and maximizing recruitment. The academic content of these schemes—as dictated by intake—is sometimes more appropriate to diploma than to postgraduate level.

  10.  In all of this we see universities, and their staff, under pressure to maintain an outward appearance of consistent standards. I have chosen a small number of the more obvious and easily summarized symptoms. The pressure ultimately is financial—institutions do not want their recruitment levels to fall. But in reality, standards have fallen, because of a lack of courage, a failure to stand by the long-standing hallmarks of good academic work. Staff know it, and employers know it. Numbers of firsts have gone up. The 2.ii and 3rd are endangered species. At any level, in any context, staff are discouraged, by statistical systems as much as anything, from awarding low fails. Thus it appears as if standards are rising, but the real effect is to devalue degrees.

December 2008

78   Swansea University. Back

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