Pressure to ‘dumb down’ angers academics

Platon Kuzmich 30 October 2008

The quality of higher education in Britain may have fallen, according to a recent survey by the Times Higher Education magazine (THE).

Seventy-seven percent of the 500 academics questioned said they felt increased pressure to award better marks to their students.

Although only 34 percent thought that reports of dumbing down in universities were accurate, 82 percent believed that a lack of resources was contributing to a decline in academic standards.

Just 31 percent of those consulted agreed that a rise in first and 2.i degrees was evidence of rising standards.

Ann Mroz, the editor of the THE, said that the poll showed there were “real issues on the ground”.

In an interview with BBC News, Ms Mroz explained that many THE readers felt discontented with current grading systems.He stated that they believe the increase in the number of top degree classifications awarded over the last decade has been misleading.

They felt it was “less an indication of improving standards and more of pressure for constant improvement from Whitehall that has led to distortion of the system”.

Sir Peter Williams, Chief Executive of the university watchdog QAA, claimed that the degree classification system is no longer useful at the Commons Universities Committee earlier this year.

Writing in the THE, Williams explained that standards “will inevitably change over time, reflecting developments in the world at large. Whether they are the same as 10, 20, 30 years ago is irrelevant.”

“What is important is that they should be right for today and meet the diverse needs of society as they are now.”

Williams also claimed that the increasing numbers of non-traditional students had altered the universities’ standards.

He suggested that “as higher education embraces more and more of the intellectual range of the population, it may need to redefine and expand the concept of academic standards”.

The poll also indicated that opinions were divided over the question of international students’ effect on academic standards.

27 percent felt that the admittance of students from overseas had led to a decline in standards, while 43 percent judged that it had not.

David Lammy, Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, sees the increasing participation of international students as an encouraging sign.

He was quoted in The Guardian as insisting that “our higher education system has a well deserved international reputation for excellence, a fact demonstrated by the numbers of students who are attracted to study here each year from around the world, second only to the USA.”

Mr Lammy cites substantial increases in government spending on education as proof that “the government is investing more in higher education than ever before.”

” By 2011 we will have increased funding by 30 percent in real terms since 1997 – spending £11 billion a year on higher education.”

18 universities in the UK are to test the upcoming Higher Education Achievement Report.

The report aims to supplement the current grading system by giving more information about students’ performances in individual modules and assessment.

Platon Kuzmich