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18/12/2014

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Scrutiny – a safeguard worth protecting

Phil Willis is disturbed by the latest inquiry

The current select committee system embodies the principle that government policy should be open to vigorous public scrutiny. The system has served Parliament and the public well.

Nowhere is the committees’ scrutiny more necessary than where government allocates policy making and resources to independent organisations such as the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and their main beneficiaries, the universities. Yet, as the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee is finding during its current inquiry into the student experience, scrutiny is met with suspicion, even hostility. We regularly hear the defensive cries of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘institutional autonomy’.

Damaging allegations

We launched our current inquiry at a time when a barrage of potentially damaging allegations about the UK higher education system was being aired in the media. Complaints included plagiarism, grade manipulation, misuse of external examiners, pressure on academics to alter student grades, and significant grade inflation.

On first examination, there did appear to be some conflicting evidence that needed closer examination. A near doubling of the number of first class degrees since the early 1990s, and a 44 per cent rise in upper seconds, suggested a huge rise in academic performance – yet this hardly married with a 2008 survey of academics in the Times Higher Education.1 According to that poll, 77 per cent of academic staff felt pressure to increase marks, 82 per cent felt that financial pressures were affecting student experience and 69 per cent felt that the rise in first class degrees was not evidence of improved standards.

The University and College Union, which represents academics at all stages of their careers, said in its evidence to the select committee that ‘Our members have raised concerns about perceived “grade inflation”, though they believe that it is caused mainly by pressures on examiners from above (managers and funders) as well as from students. Changing the metric, therefore, is unlikely to have an impact on “grade inflation”.’  And, with the boss of the Quality Assurance Agency, Peter Williams, claiming the degree classification system in UK universities to be ‘rotten’ and ‘arbitrary and unreliable’, we expected a barrage of evidence to support these claims.

Ranks closed

Not so – the university establishment across the whole sector closed ranks. Every institution was near perfect and the very organisations which put such store by ‘evidence’ appeared reluctant to examine what evidence appeared.

The Higher Education Policy Institute study,2 which compared the amount of taught and private study time undertaken to gain a higher level degree from different universities, was dismissed as having a flawed methodology. Yet few could see the irony of clinging to a system where individual institutions were in fact the arbiter of their own standards, including degree classification.

Reluctant academics

What was more disappointing was the lack of evidence coming forward from academics themselves, for or against the premise of ‘dumbing down’. Where it did arrive from academics claiming that they had been pressurised into raising grades, re-marking papers, or lowering standards, it was usually from mid-to-late career academics. It seems that academics towards the start of their careers appear reluctant to submit evidence. We can only speculate that younger academics do not want to get a reputation for rocking the boat and risking their career prospects. Equally it may be they are perfectly satisfied with the system – in which case it would be useful to hear their evidence.

If, as custodians of the scrutiny process, a select committee cannot penetrate our multi-billion pound, self-regulating university system, then just who will be able to offer the public, and indeed the wider community, an assurance that all is well?

1 John Gill, “Keep it stupid, simple”, Times Higher Education ,23 October 2008, available at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404042

2 Tom Sastry and Bahram Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, Higher Education Policy Institute. Available at www.hepi.ac.uk/downloads/33TheacademicexperienceofstudentsinEnglishuniversities2007.pdf

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Phil Willis
Phil Willis MP chairs the innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee of the House of Commons
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