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TCW Whistleblower: Our universities are fiddling degree results

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Chris McGovern was right on Wednesday to give a cautious welcome to the clean-up of A-levels. One stage up, I regret to say, the situation is less satisfactory.

I’m talking of university exams – at least in the arts (where I teach). True, some remain impeccably conducted, normally where there is a conservative, no-nonsense head of department with much tact and a very thick skin. But elsewhere dumbing-down, casual incompetence and something close to downright cheating continue merrily, regularly connived at by those who don’t want their life made difficult.

Let me elaborate.

For one thing, it’s middle-ranking university teachers who set the exams, often with minimal supervision (academic autonomy, don’t you see). Today these people are on average not super-bright, mediocrely educated, probably leftish-conformist participants in the genteel class struggle, and astonishingly incurious about the world. They’re apt to view a university as a kind of seventh-form college, and their job not so much as challenging students but ensuring they reach their “full potential” – i.e. highish marks for lowish effort. Couple this with a certain insouciance about work hours (“My partner has a high-powered job: you’ll understand this means I absolutely can’t work during school run time or while I’m taking Carly to her dancing class on Tuesdays”), and the omens for a rigorous paper aren’t good. Come to think of it, who said anything about a paper? Multiple choice is quite OK once you put aside any old-fashioned inhibitions over learning by numbers.

For another, coursework rules supreme. Never mind that nearly everyone summarises the same books and articles which you told them to read and then put multiple copies of in the library; that in the interests of fairness you told them the points to look out for in your seminar; or that plagiarism is unavoidable (indeed you can order up coursework on the Net – just a credit-card number, please). After all, here we’re very much in the land of the university branch of the Blob. Research has shown that exams are so unfair to working-class kids and minorities: you’ve just got to do things this way to make sure the very middling students provincial universities take these days (probably under some “widening access” programme) get good results.

Thirdly, cheats and Spanish practices are commoner than you think. Put hints about what’s in the exam in a lecture? Why not? The students aren’t going to tell, and there’s no-one else there to make a fuss. Peruse coursework before submission, just to give broad advice? Certainly: even better, this lets you and tick a box marked “feedback” while you go. Indeed it’s not unknown in some universities for the young to be asked to hand in coursework, get detailed advice about improving it, re-write it according to that advice, and then finally submit it – a process charmingly called as feed-forward. You’ll be surprised to know that this has, in academic-speak, been causative of greatly enhanced assessment outcomes. Some institutions go yet further, disseminating copies of exam papers twenty-four hours early so students can mug up for the big day. So important to reduce the trauma for those with exam nerves, you’ll understand.

In theory the integrity of the process is assured by external examiners, who carefully monitor all exams and their marking. If only. While some externals are commendably conscientious and painstaking, others are less so. After all, you still get your fee (normally a couple of hundred to over £1,000 according to circumstances) if all you do is tick boxes, say everything is wonderful and don’t rock the boat. And in any case you have no power over actual marks. All you can do, even if you disagree, is press the nuclear button by putting in a formal complaint to the university concerned. And guess how many do that.

The attitude of university bigwigs? Pretty accommodating. You see, they’re in a market these days, just like Procter & Gamble. They’re chasing consumer satisfaction, aka in the university context the National Student Survey or NSS, where students say how happy they are on a count of 1 to 5 (or whatever). Look at any university departmental website and it’ll stress the NSS score: the higher, the better. Will students give your department a decent NSS score if they got a shock because you made an exam unfairly challenging? You get the hint. Cheating by academics? We know nothing about that, but we are satisfied that our processes are robust, etc. etc.

This is a scandal with two groups of victims. One is students, fobbed off with second-rate instruction fig-leaved by inflated marks. The other, more sad, is parents, often of limited means, induced to make sacrifices to provide their offspring with a good (sorry, “world-class”) education when what they’re getting is often nothing of the sort.

Without a couple of convenient rivers to divert, it’s difficult to know where to start with this Augean stable. One possible beginning, however, would be this. Make the right to charge £9,000-plus fees conditional on (a) no reference in any official publication to NSS scores, and (b) universities signing up to an undertaking, prominently displayed on all departmental literature, forbidding the practices outlined above, and providing a place where whistleblowers can spill the beans in confidence. Add to this a government campaign, as loud and clear as that over A-levels, that the present comfortable fudge won’t do. Justine Greening, it’s over to you to make some waves.

(Image: David Morris)

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