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Academics are breaking ranks to expose a grim picture of higher education
A GROUP of academic whistle-blowers have warned that British higher education is being blighted by watered-down degrees, rampant plagiarism and systematic pressure from university authorities to inflate the grades of weak undergraduates.
The complaints by the academics — working at universities including Oxford, Sussex, Birmingham, Cardiff and new institutions such as Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan — have been presented in a 500-page dossier to an MPs’ inquiry.
One reports a student begging “please don’t dumb down any further”, while another says students are more interested in sending text messages in class than paying attention.
The problems are blamed on two decades of relentless university expansion without adequate funding.
The evidence increases pressure on John Denham, the universities secretary, to take steps to guard quality as he prepares to announce a strategy for higher education this summer.
One source at the select committee said: “It has to be quite a brave person to stick their necks out like this.
“There is sufficient commonality between their concerns to be worth taking seriously – it is incumbent on the authorities to do so. The worry is they are inclined to dismiss rather than investigate.”
Those who have given evidence include Sue Evans, an economics lecturer of some 30 years’ standing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
She describes a disappointed Slovakian undergraduate saying last term: “This university is like high school in Slovakia.”
Another begged the department: “Don’t dumb down the subject any more than you already have.”
Evans also provides extensive allegations of marks frequently being revised upwards without justification. She says she has raised her concerns “repeatedly” with the university but without any response.
Her complaints are echoed by Stuart Derbyshire, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University. On one occasion, he said: “When I complained, he [an external examiner charged with scrutinising standards] stated that it was no longer 1986 and that we cannot mark like we did in the past.
‘We must’, he said, ‘look harder for excellence’.”
Some of the submissions raise concerns over the commitment of students themselves.
The dossier includes warnings from some of Britain’s most senior academics. Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, wrote that, while he approved of expanding university education, too much of it is “remedial secondary education passed off as something else”.
At Oxford, he said, “anyone who remains awake and is tolerably well organised can get a 2:1”. He added that there is a “dumbing to the middle” at the university in which compliance with government quality procedures is more important than “waking up minds”.
Peter Dorey, a politics academic at Cardiff, said: “They often sit in seminars with only their mobile phone in front of them on the desk . . . but no books or notepads.”
He told the inquiry: “Many of them are semi-literate,” adding that he was starting to feel “as if I am wasting my time with today’s students”.
Some of the greatest concerns raised are over the quality of science education.
Janet Collett, emeritus biology lecturer at Sussex who also holds a post at Harvard, warned the committee of “serious slippage of standards”. She said many leading American academics believe “sharp critical thinking and fostering independence are no longer the hallmarks of British university education”.
Collett said this weekend that American colleagues complained that even Oxbridge science graduates “just didn’t know enough”.
Higher education is now more popular than ever, with figures released last month showing applications to start degrees this autumn up 7.8% on last year, when 413,000 started at university.
However, there are signs that head teachers at the most academically successful state and independent schools are starting to steer the brightest pupils to join a steady trickle across the Atlantic.
Andrew Halls, headmaster of the independent King’s College school in Wimbledon, south London, claimed that at a recent parents’ meeting, half the 200 or so present said they would consider sending their children to America.
“US universities are starting to have a real edge,” said Halls. “The more they [British universities] water down their degrees, which they patently are, the worse.”
David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, said there was still widespread excellence, but added: “A lot of students who get in touch with me are raising issues such as how crowded their seminars are, how rapidly they get work returned with a mark. Those are the types of issues students and parents really worry about. Universities have to listen.”
Universities contacted this weekend to respond to the submissions denied there were quality problems or that staff were pressed to change grades.
A spokeswoman for Manchester Metropolitan added: “Miss Evans expresses a lot of very personal views but presents very little objective information. There is no evidence staff are put under any pressure to bump up grades. We are extremely disappointed and upset that a colleague has chosen to raise these issues externally.”
David Boucher, head of the school of European studies at Cardiff, said: “The school does not recognise the picture of students Dr Dorey paints.”
From The Sunday Times March 8, 2009