Lecturers 'pressed to boost degree results'
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Degree standards in many British universities are in danger of collapsing because lecturers are under pressure to "mark positively" and turn a blind eye to plagiarism, the man who was in charge of safeguarding standards at Britain's largest university will say today. Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London, warns that "league table culture" has led to an explosion in the number of firsts awarded.
Latest figures show they have gone up by more than 100 per cent over the past decade from 16,708 to 36,645 – at a time when the undergraduate population has risen by just over 40 per cent. In a lecture at the University of Buckingham, Professor Alderman will also argue that universities have been particularly lenient with overseas students because they rely on them so heavily for fee income – so much so that they turn a blind eye to plagiarism and cheating.
Universities currently rake in fees of about £1.5bn a year from students outside the European Union – who can be charged the full cost of their courses. Their numbers have soared by nearly 40 per cent in the past five years – bringing the total to just over 137,000. In the past decade, only one of the UK's top universities – Cambridge – has reduced the proportion of firsts and 2:1s.
Despite this, Professor Alderman, who was also head of quality at Middlesex University, will tell his audience: "Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressured to 'mark positively'. This is particularly true in relation to international students, whose full-cost fees are now a lucrative and essential source of much-needed revenue.
"I have heard it seriously argued that international students who plagiarise should be treated more leniently than British students because of 'differential cultural norms'. It is indeed rare, nowadays, for habitual plagiarists to be expelled from their universities."
Professor Alderman will cite the case of Paul Buckland, a professor of environmental archaeology at Bournemouth University, who resigned after university authorities ruled that 13 students whom he and a formal examination board had judged to have failed a course should be deemed to have passed it.
Also, at Liverpool University, he will add, a reform of the grading process led to a sudden leap in the percentage of first-class honours awards from 7 per cent to 17 per cent in a year.
"It is now apparently possible for Liverpool students to be awarded first-class honours without having actually achieved a first-class mark in any individual component of their degrees," he will allege. Liverpool denies the suggestion.
Professor Alderman's thoughts are shared in private by many academics. Another to speak out publicly is Jonathan Bate, professor of English at Warwick University, who has said: "There are universities where instructions go round to staff reminding them [that] awarding more top-class degrees will push their institution up both the national and international league tables."
"The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque 'bidding' game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the altar of public image – as reflected in newspaper rankings."
Professor Alderman's comments on plagiarism appear to be backed by research which shows that – despite 9,229 recorded cases of plagiarism in a year – only 143 students were expelled. The survey of 93 higher education institutions, conducted by the Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee, found widespread variations in the way plagiarism was tackled by different universities. Plagiarism was twice as common in less-selective universities than the smaller more-popular universities. It was also higher than among members of the Russell Group – which represents the top 20 research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.
Professor Alderman will also argue that students are playing their own part in the "dumbing down" of standards.
Since they had been asked to pay more for their courses, they were "more interested merely in acquiring and regurgitating those segments of knowledge necessary to obtain a degree" rather than learning more deeply about their subject.
A spokesman for Universities UK, the body which represents university vice-chancellors, said: "The UK model for assuring quality and standards in higher education is sound and well-established. It is also well respected internationally and has informed and influenced parallel developments worldwide. All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university, including through the external examiner system, and the university's processes and mechanisms are, in turn, subject to additional external scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education."
Professor Alderman will claim that these new inspection systems concentrate on whether lecturers have followed procedures correctly – rather than questioning grade boundaries and the quality of marking.
(Graph source: Higher Education Standarads Agency)