When I raised concerns that students were; receiving good grade for low quality work, senior staff were hostile
There’s a widespread view that the university system has become soft, and that the qualifications it offers have become easier to gain. Universities say that improved grade reflect an improvement in teaching quality, not falling standards. For those of us who work in universities, we know which interpretation is correct.
I am an experienced lecturer and external examiner, but was; forced to leave a teaching position for drawing attention to the low quality of student work; and the high grade it received. My attempts to highlight grade inflation to my peers were; met with indifference and exasperation, but, ultimately, an acceptance that standards had fallen.
From senior colleagues, however, I met outright hostility, denial and dismissal. Talking to colleagues at other universities suggests I am far from alone, with stories of resignations under threat and no-fault dismissals with pay-outs not uncommon.
All bar the most junior entrants to the profession have seen standards fall during their career. Colleagues say they have seen an experienced lecturer let go for failing a high proportion of students, a head of department telling teaching staff to consider the impact of final year grade on National Student Survey returns, and a vice-chancellor highlighting in a speech how poor grades can depress student applications.
While these may be the worst examples, most institutions seem to possess only a limited willingness to consider tough questions about standards. Senior staff at another university I’ve worked at may be prepared to unofficially concede a decline in standards, but they are extremely hostile to discussing potential solutions and have pushed back aggressively against attempts to raise our assessment expectations, arguing that to do so would unfairly disadvantage our graduates relative to those of our competitors.
These stories are; confirmed by recent data. The number of students receiving first and upper second-class degrees has risen by an inexplicably large margin over the past decade, with the most significant increases found at former polytechnics, or newer “post-92” institutions.
It seems that government policy has led higher education leaders to make a Faustian bargain: lower standards of assessment are the price of increased admissions, which are necessary to ensure financial security.
The quality control mechanisms of higher education also don’t seem to be working. External examiners are too few and poorly paid; the rules from the quality control body, the Quality Assurance Agency, are vague; and the central regulator, the Office for Students, is toothless.
The impact of falling standards on the economy and public confidence in academia cannot be overstated. The integrity of our profession is; undermined when we churn out graduates who possess the requisite pieces of paper to get a “graduate job”, regardless of whether they are; able to do such work.
It’s time we owned up to the problems the sector faces and – as professionals – took a stand for higher academic standards. If we don’t, it will become increasingly difficult to explain to the next generation of students why they should invest in a university education that leads only to a degree of declining real value.