Geoffrey Alderman: Why British University Standards Have Fallen

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Geoffrey Alderman is currently Michael Gross professor of politics & contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.]

...I believe that there has been a decline in academic standards overall in British higher education over the past two decades, but not for the reasons advanced by the AGR. The evidence for this decline is contained in the 2009 report, Students and Universities, of the then select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills. In my written and oral evidence to this inquiry, I identified the following factors as fundamental to this decline:

First, the league table culture that has permeated the senior leaderships of many British universities, resulting in intolerable pressures on academic staff to pass students who should rightfully fail and to award higher classes of degrees to the undeserving.

Second, pressures to maximise non-governmental sources of income, primarily from "full fee-paying" non-European students, to whom it is deemed prudent by these same senior leaderships to award qualifications to which they are often not entitled, so as to ensure future "market share".

Third, the increasing and increasingly stupid use of students' course evaluations as pivotal factors in the academic promotion process. To put it bluntly, a conscientious academic with poor student evaluations may find it difficult or even impossible to obtain promotion because her/his students do not like getting the low grades they may well richly deserve.

Fourth, the breakdown of the external examiner system, due partly to the near-universal modularisation of degree programmes and partly to the abysmal remuneration for work of this sort. The evidence given to the select committee of improper pressure on external examiners makes exceedingly grim reading.

Fifth, the relative leniency shown towards academic dishonesty, coupled with the tendency of university administrators to insist that plagiarism be viewed through the prism of what I believe is termed "cultural relativism".

So, let me be quite clear: I do not believe that "more" necessarily means "worse". But I do believe that more has come to mean worse because of the toxic combination of factors I have listed above, and which are obviously interrelated....

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