Thursday, November 25, 2004


"First-hand evidence of the widespread dumbing down of academic standards has emerged in an exclusive Times Higher survey. Academics reported that they were teaching students who were not capable of benefiting from degree-level study and that they had been forced to pass students who did not deserve it - as university managers struggled to maintain student numbers and teaching budgets. The survey of almost 400 academics found that five out of six agreed that "the squeeze on the resources of higher education institutions is having a general adverse effect on academic standards". The survey also found that:

* 71 per cent agreed that their "institution had admitted students who are not capable of benefiting from higher level study"

* Almost half (48 per cent) reported that they had "felt obliged to pass a student whose performance did not really merit a pass"

* 42 per cent said that "decisions to fail students' work had been overruled at higher levels in the institution" - compared with 38 per cent who disagreed with the statement

* Almost one in five admitted to turning "a blind eye" to student plagiarism.

Responding to the survey, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It would be worrying if universities were admitting students who are not capable of completing their courses, or passing students who do not merit it. The Government is clear that admission to university must be on merit, based on a student's achievements and potential." Alan Smithers, an adviser to MPs on education policy, said: "These findings are powerful evidence of something that has been very difficult to prove."He said some universities were trapped in a "vicious circle" by a funding system that forced them to accept weaker students to fill places, but imposed financial penalties if any dropped out. "It is almost inevitable that standards will drop," he said.

Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We have been saying for a long time that the Government (and institutions) are trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. There are simply too few lecturers employed in higher education."

Investigations by The Times Higher reveal how far some universities have been forced to make compromises. At Middlesex University, minutes from a computing department meeting last year highlight "complaints made at assessment boards about the literacy and numeracy levels of students". Documents also reveal that over two consecutive terms, Middlesex computing undergraduates were provided with the model answers before sitting the exams. The students produced such similar, word-perfect answers that there were concerns about mass plagiarism. Ken Goulding, Middlesex pro vice-chancellor, said that it was unacceptable that a tutor had provided answers in revision classes, but said the students' results were allowed to stand with the agreement of the external examiners as there had been no cheating.

The "dumbing down" internet survey of Times Higher readers with teaching and marking responsibilities undertaken over the past month also found that most academics agreed that their universities had become increasingly tolerant of student absenteeism. Almost half said that their department had cut important curriculum areas because they were too expensive to teach.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said that the survey represented only a small sample of academics. But she added: "UUK has for years pressed the Government to reform funding to reverse years of spending decline to prevent a quality crisis. This is why UUK fought so hard to secure the variable fees policy."


Best class rank, or best school?

Education-obsessed families (such as my own) have long pushed their children to strive for the best colleges possible. Better college, better prospects -- even if it was accepted that one might receive just as good an education at a less prestigious school.

But could this accepted wisdom be flawed? A while back, Forbes ran a couple of articles that analyzed career tracks after graduation for students accepted by Yale, comparing those who went to Yale with those who opted to go to cheaper and less highly ranked schools. According to the authors, there was little difference between the two groups, while there was a definite correlation between SAT scores and later real-world success. I'm sure the study had its flaws -- is it even possible to measure the totality of what one gets out of college? -- yet even with all its approximations and simplifications, it cannot be summarily dismissed.

And now another study suggests that, at least for law schools, class rank may be more important than school rank. So with the notable exception of the top ten or so law schools, you might be better off going to the best school where you can be at the top of the class rather than the best school you can get into. Brief summary here; interestingly, the results come out of work asking if affirmative action programs (and my family's conventional wisdom) may actually be counterproductive for most students (full article here; also posts here, here, here, and here). Unfortunately, affirmative action is such a hot-button topic that even the ancillary conclusions of the study may well end up swept under the carpet (it has already been noted how the LA Times' article on the study appeared under the misleading headline, Professor Assails Anti-Bias Program, rather than something like "Professor Finds Anti-Bias Program Counterproductive").

Post lifted from Cronaca


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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