Sunday, August 01, 2004

Degrees for sale?

I woke up to this story on Radio 4 this morning, its source a report in today's Observer:

'Degrees for sale' at UK universities
· Failing students passed to keep funds flowing · Lecturers fear academic standards are slipping
Martin Bright
Cash-strapped British universities are awarding degrees to students who should be failed, in return for lucrative fees, The Observer can reveal.

The 'degrees-for-sale' scandal stretches from the most prestigious institutions to the former polytechnics and includes undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, foreign and home students. In the most extreme case, The Observer has evidence of a professor ordering staff to mark up students at risk of failing in order to keep the money coming in.

Lecturers at institutions across the country, including Oxford, London and Swansea, told The Observer the scandal is undermining academic standards, but they cannot speak publicly for fear of losing their jobs.
The only thing that rings true for me in this article is that there is indeed a funding crisis in the British Universities, but I have no experience, either direct or anecdotal, of the kinds of thing this article alleges. I have been most impressed by the rigour of examination, the quality of teaching and the maintenance of high standards in British Universities, at least in the area of Theology and in Birmingham and in other universities where I have examined. One of the reasons that I think the standard is, on the whole, strong is the external examining system whereby every department of every institution has several external examiners who carefully scrutinise a given department's assessment.

One of the examples given in the article is at best anecdotal and does not add up to much:
This impression has been passed to the students themselves. Gilbert Cervelli, an American theology and history student who spent six months at Oxford this year for a credit towards his American Bachelor of Arts degree said he received all A grades.'For a majority of my time at Oxford, I wondered if I could write an absolute crap essay and still have my tutor tell me it wonderful just because I was a huge investment. To think that the only reason I was admitted to Oxford University was because I had money and came from America is a rather cynical view, one that I hope is not true.'
I think that this is cynical and I doubt that it's true, not least because those doing the teaching and assessment do not have anything to gain personally from marking up a poor student, and they have a great deal to lose, especially in terms of their reputation. For what it is worth, I did some tutoring in Oxford while working on my doctorate and I did not get paid any extra if I was teaching a foreign student! Nor do I know of any institution where you get a bonus for teaching more overseas students. The suggestion of corruption here sounds like utter nonsense to me. Since it is so potentially damaging, I think it is very important indeed that such serious allegations are either properly substantiated or dropped. The Observer does follow on with with this comment:
A statement by Oxford University said: 'The university sets great importance on both the rigour and fairness of its examination procedures. Candidates are examined anonymously, with numbers rather than names or other identifying details on exam papers. Papers are blind double-marked, with external examiners carrying out random quality control checks and adjudicating in borderline cases or where there are discrepancies in the double marking.'
This is exactly right; in my experience the assessment process in this country remains at a very high standard.

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