Going up

Students are cleverer now, and working harder - or are they? Emma Haughton considers the case for a fall in the standard of university degrees
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You don't have to be a psychology student to know that human beings are fundamentally pessimistic. Every generation since time began has believed that the forces of chaos are closing in and things just ain't what they used to be. So it is with educational standards. The latest flurry of concern over the high rate of A-level passes betrays a growing conviction that standards are falling, from nursery schools all the way up to All Souls.

Next month the Higher Education Quality Council will publish hard evidence to support what many had suspected: more students now gain good degrees than ever before. The survey of 250,000 graduate results across eight subjects, conducted by Professor Keith Chapman, a geography lecturer at Aberdeen University, shows sciences topping the inflation league: nearly one in four physics students now gains a first compared with one in eight 20 years ago. One in five maths students gets a first, with upper seconds more common than student debt. Across the board 60 per cent get a first or upper second, compared with a third of students 10 years ago.

"What you find is a very stable pattern over time," says Professor Chapman. "Some universities consistently award more good degrees than others, but the general trend is upwards. The fact that individual universities keep their relative position indicates that a broad range of factors is in operation."

The rise in grades is particularly perplexing given that a third of 18- year-olds now go on to higher education, compared with 14 per cent in 1973, and that per capita funding has fallen by 60 per cent over the last 10 years. Philip Burgess, president of the Association of University Teachers and a psychology lecturer at the University of Dundee, is one of many voicing concern over this paradox: "Given bigger classes from a wider population and overworked staff, it's extremely surprising that there is an apparent increase in the standard of output." He believes there are many "unhealthy" financial pressures on departments and universities to boost marks.

"It's a brave department that gives the same number of firsts as 20 years ago. Everyone is suffering from a chronic shortage of money and terrified they will do something to detract from their department. If you give plenty of firsts, you're seen as doing a good job and you're likely to attract more students."

Indeed, one guide to universities uses the number of firsts as a performance indicator in its league tables. This sends a clear message, says Derrik Ferney, head of Languages at Anglia Polytechnic University. "If an influential newspaper uses the number of firsts as evidence of excellence, it would be understandable if universities changed their award regulations so more people gain them."

The principal mechanism to avoid such temptations is the external examiner system, still seen by many as a powerful check against upward inflation; after all, examiners from one institution don't want to encourage better marks in another. But most admit that it is a system stretched to the limits by pressure of numbers and the trend towards modular courses.

"The external examiner system prevents runaway surges and the most blatant abuses," says Dr Burgess, "and it's probably the best we can have. But it won't protect against a general trend towards inflation across the whole system."

However, it's in the nature of academics to disagree, and some argue that we are witnessing a genuine improvement in teaching and student quality. Dr Ferney, like many staff in the ex-polys, believes that increased use of modules deserves much of the credit. "Modular courses mean students can watch their degrees take shape as they go along, rather than sitting lots of exams at the end. They get a much clearer idea of their likely grade and can adjust their efforts accordingly." Modules also encourage better teaching methods: "You have to describe with far greater clarity what it is you want your students to do and how much of that is measurable," says Dr Ferney.

Thankfully, few now argue that unseen written examinations are the acid test of intellect. The rise of continuous assessment follows a recognition that the big bang of finals tended to produce depressed students with depressed performance. Good riddance, says Geoffrey Alderman, head of academic development and quality assurance at Middlesex.

"The new range of assessment techniques are uncovering previously hidden areas of brilliance, particularly as universities are now more explicit about the criteria for particular classes of degree. When I was a student no one told me what competences I should demonstrate in an essay, so I never knew what to aim for. Today's students know exactly what to do to hit the jackpot."

Students are also much better supported, he believes. "When I was a student, the only support mechanism was a glass of sherry twice a term..."

But it's not just the university teachers who are getting it right, apparently. As the real cost of higher education mounts up, many students are taking jobs. Dedication is the key to surviving three or four years as an undergraduate, says Dr Sarah Palmer, head of History at Queen Mary and Westfield. She argues that the image of students in scarves, punting and boozing in pubs, belies the amount of sheer hard work they do.

"It used to be that second-year students were almost encouraged to doss about, but now the modular system imposes a much more relentless pressure," she says. "They're also much, more anxious about getting a 2:1. They come to you at the end of the first year and ask what they have to do to get a good degree; they're worried a 2:2 will bar them from many jobs."

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that any hard facts will emerge to dispel the speculation around grade inflation in the near future. It would be difficult to find areas of the curriculum that are sufficiently clear cut to make comparisons, and even more unlikely that institutions would keep archives of assessment material for long enough.

But that's not to say it shouldn't be attempted. "Unless we get some sort of handle on this issue, we'll always be prisoners of those who say we are deflating standards," says Dr Burgess. "It's a terrible comment on the state of higher education policy-making that we're in the dark about such a critical issue"n

`Some students were passed who knew very little and had clearly failed'

A debate about degree standards has divided academics in the mathematical sciences department at Loughborough University where several lecturers have spoken out in criticism of marking practices.

"The department is adjusting marks to achieve preordained levels without genuine consideration of actual standards," says Stan Sherman, a lecturer who retired in September. Marks are changed to meet a departmental approach that no more than 10 per cent of students should fail and that marks should fall within a mean of 50 to 60 per cent, he claims.

So concerned was Mr Sherman that earlier this year he refused to sign the mark-sheets for two modules he taught and examined. In one case the overall student average of 70.4 was reduced to 66.8 per cent; in the other the average of 60 per cent was nudged up to 66 per cent. The result was that students with marks in the thirties were pushed up to over 40, which is the pass mark. "It's clear that some students were passed who knew very little, and had clearly failed a straightforward exam," he says.

"I was particularly concerned that in this mathematically very low-level module, inadequate students should not be passed. But the department passed them anyway."

University officials, however, say they are bewildered by the allegations. Dr Clive Pugh, head of the department of mathematical sciences, who declined to answer Mr Sherman's specific allegations on the grounds that exam procedures were confidential, agreed that marks were adjusted to take account of variations in exam papers. "It is a process for ironing out problems that groups of students have had with particular modules," he says. "It is a procedure that is gone through in most engineering and science departments not only in this university but across the country."

According to Loughborough's academic secretary, Nicholas McHard, assessment processes are dynamic and follow the needs of the students as they change, but standards remain firm. "Exam questions are assessed and considered by groups of staff in departments and the papers themselves are seen by an external examiner. If students don't perform to the requisite standard, they will fail."

A spokesperson for the university said the exams were moderated in a very open and transparent process. "We're absolutely confident we deliver good-quality degrees."

Mr Sherman is supported by Howard English, a Loughborough maths lecturer who is also worried about the lack of solid guidelines for changing raw marks from exams and coursework. "In one staff meeting last year there didn't seem to be any real policy on which marks were changed and which weren't," he says. "Changing students' marks in any direction should be treated as a serious exercise and not a lottery-type farce."

Both he and Mr Sherman think it is financial pressures on universities that are leading to falling standards. "Departments can't afford more than a small percentage of failures, so if the exams are too hard for the students we make them easier or shift their marks afterwards," says Mr English. "Certain courses have been made very much easier."

The courses are moderated by external examiners who are sent samples of students' work and can interview students if they wish. Professor Chris Collinson, dean of maths at Hull University and an external examiner for Loughborough, says it is right that universities set papers catering for less able candidates. "We're taking in a larger range of abilities, and assessment mechanisms have to reflect that. If you make a paper too difficult, the more mediocre students find it impossible to answer all the questions. You need to give everyone the chance to show their ability."

Standards and marking policies have, until now, been left to individual universities. Loughborough's maths department uses what other experts call norm-referencing to grade its students - a given proportion are passed and marks are adjusted to meet a mean. A number of universities use criterion referencing, which means students who achieve published criteria passn

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