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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Standardisation of University Degrees

Monday, August 03, 2009

On 2nd August, the UK's Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee reported on Students and Universities. Among discussion about access, tuition fees, and the role of further education colleges, the main headline here is about the assurance of the standards of degrees across universities. The committee reports that:
the current system for safeguarding standards is out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced. The Quality Assurance Agency should be transformed into an independent Quality and Standards Agency with a specific standards remit.

The Committee also says that the culture at the top of the sector should change. The Committee found defensive complacency in the leadership of the sector and no appetite to explore key issues such as the reasons for the proportional increase in first and upper second class honours degrees in the past 15 years.

It is unacceptable to the Committee that Vice-Chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards.
This has been a perennial problem. How do universities retain their independence to teach innovative, distinctive courses, whilst ensuring that a student at one university has to work just as hard to achieve the same degree result as a student from another?

It is clearly important for employers to know that candidates are graduating with equivalent degrees. An employer needs to compare individuals on a like-for-like basis, whereas the system as it stands might allow a candidate from a university that is generous in awarding results to attain a 2:1 when at a different institution he or she might have been awarded a 2:2. Alternatively, given that employers cannot know the demands of every course at every university, although one hopes the old boy's club has long since closed for business, it might be tempting for an employer to perceive a candidate with a lesser degree from a well-known, red-brick university as being better than a candidate with a higher degree from a comparatively anonymous former polytechnic.

As things stand, without national standards across universities, it is ironic that whilst universities - quite legitimately - complain about grade inflation at A-level which makes it impossible to distinguish between applicants all predicted top marks, degree inflation is rife at universities themselves. One of the key markers on league tables is employability, and one of the key determinants of employability is the quality of degree a jobseeker leaves with. It is not surprising, then, that the committee noted that whilst 53% of students achieved a first or 2:1 in 1997, that had risen to 61% by 2008.

Standardisation only exacerbates, rather than alleviating the problem of inflation, however, as I experienced at first hand when I graduated in 2003. Look at the degree results in my subject, English Literature, from my undergraduate institution:

Now as an English literature academic mathematics may be my weak point, but something clearly happened in 2003, the year I graduated. I remember that nervous day when we gathered around to look at the results on the board, and were stunned to see a quarter of the results from the class of 2003 were Firsts. Certainly it took something of the shine off my own (and, indeed, with hindsight, I am not at all sure I merited one). Suddenly, compared to previous years, an additional ten percent of us were now getting Firsts who could have been expected to get 2:1s in previous years.

It is certainly not that our exams were easier than those sat by previous years, and unlikely that our class (or those subsequently) suddenly became better at reading books. Unlike A-Levels, where exams have undoubtedly become less rigorous, exams in English at universities tend to ask certain questions about certain texts and authors, and to keep asking them in the same way year after year. If something had happened to our year in 2003, it was stemming from statisticians, not literature students or academics.

I have since gathered that the reason for this effect was standardisation. It was reasoned that since my university department demanded its entrants have 3 As at A-Level, and since university degrees are supposedly of the same standard across institutions, there should be more, better quality candidates emerging with the really top degrees than at institutions taking in a lower calibre of student from A-Level. As computer programmers say: garbage-in, garbage-out.

The risk with the standardisation of degrees across different universities, though, is that it denigrates the effect universities can have in changing the ambitions and skills of their students. Ideally, universities are democratic places, where students are accepted based on their intellectual qualities rather than their social or economic backgrounds, and which subsequently promote bright graduates into higher paid jobs, whatever their class of birth. This is why, as New Labour has failed to decrease child poverty or the gap between rich and poor, they have turned to universities as the engines of egalitarianism. However, since the system is currently biased such that students from private schools go to the best universities (because, in a broken A-Level system, students cannot be compared on intellectual merit), standardisation ensures that this effect will be exacerbated later, as those same privileged students are more likely to emerge with the top degrees.

However, to translate across an argument made in relation to university entrance criteria, it may be that a student with worse A-level results, going to a weaker university, has to work harder to attain a 2:1 than a student at a better university. For example, the top universities might well have more individual tuition, better library facilities, increased levels of pastoral and financial support. The student who has struggled through a university with none of these things may have to try harder than a student who breezes through on the back of them. Universities are not just about the gaining of knowledge for specific workplaces. A university course in biochemistry or English is a horribly inefficient way of enabling a student to enter a graduate programme with a bank or consultancy, as many do. But graduate employers know that universities matter primarily not for the pure knowledge they transmit, but for the techniques and transferable skills students acquire in its pursuit: how to evaluate and acquire different sources of information, how to work independently, how to juggle work and life, how to evaluate problems and pioneer solutions. A student who has attained a degree from a university which offers minimal contact hours, or has a limited library, may well acquire as many of these skills as a student from a well resourced institution. Saying that the former should be more likely to get a worse degree than the latter simply because they are entering with lesser qualifications diminishes the valuable work all universities do by nature, changing the capacities of the students who pass through them.

It is entirely understandable that employers need some simple measure by which to evaluate a student's rounded abilities, to allow them to understand how a university's standing might have affected the sort of education they have received. Is a student with a 2:1 from an established university really better than a student with a 2:1 from a less well-known one? Is a student with a First from my university really among an elite few nationally, or have they been awarded that top class on the back of the university's national ranking? The answer to these questions is not simply to boost the degree classes of those at the top who take the brightest students, and to cut those at the bottom. The degree classification system, with its narrow banding, is simply not fit for this purpose, for if the logic of standardisation continues on its trend since I graduated, within 50 years we would expect all students at my university to get Firsts, and presumably all students somewhere else to get Thirds. The government's plans to change the degree system as recommended by the Burgess Report, though iconoclastic to an ancient system, cannot come soon enough.

At a course level, too, standardisation becomes an impossible beast with which to wrestle. Is it more or less challenging, for example, for a literature student to specialise in modules in contemporary fiction than in the Romantic poets? Does a student who studies poetry (poetry being an endangered species at some universities) undertake an easier literature degree than a student who wrestles with longer novels (which seem in some departments to be the sole literary genre)? Is a university that only offers modules in literature requiring its students to carry out a more rigorous course than universities that allow students to think also about film adaptations of literary texts?

I do not think there can or should be any definitive answers to these comparisons. The risk of degree standardisation is that courses too may become uniform across the sector, preventing a student from participating in a culture of research that is reflected in the unique modules taught by enthusiastic lecturers. Universities exist not just to give students a degree at the end, but to allow students to immerse themselves in a subject - or elements of a subject - that they enjoy for an extended period of time, taking with them the intellectual grounding that lasts a lifetime. Even if we could quantitatively measure whether studying the novel was "harder" than studying poetry, or if one university demands more of its students than another, degree results ought to indicate the quality of a student, not a university. A student, at any university, should only attain a First if they have fully engaged with their subject, regardless of how that university or student's entrance qualifications stands compared to others. There are no such things as standard students. There ought not to be such things as standardised degrees.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:59 pm


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