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Degrees Getting Too Easy, Say Inspectors

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New evidence of the ‘dumbing down’ of degree standards has been uncovered by Higher Education Funding Council assessors who are inspecting every university department in England.

The 50 latest reports to have been published name 15 universities where standards are a cause for concern. At Loughborough, for example, the assessors noted that the proportion of electrical engineering graduates awarded first or upper second-class degrees had risen over five years from 40% to 74%. They said: “This is a rapid increase that does not appear to be linked to a corresponding improvement in the quality of the intake or of the academic content of the courses.”

Similarly, they said of the general engineering department at De Montfort: “The distribution of honours degree classifications appears normal, but it is difficult to relate this to input levels… Standards have been eroded.” In De Montfort’s materials technology department, they found, they found that coursework, which accounted for 100% of some modules, was being marked over-generously, and some courses in the agriculture department lacked academic depth.

Agriculture also lacked intellectual challenge at Plymouth, while at Lincolnshire and Humberside, it lacked rigour, the marking was over-generous and some students were ‘failing to display skills in critical evaluation appropriate to their level of degree classification’. Even at an institution as academically reputable as King’s College, London, the assessors were disturbed to discover that the pass mark for electrical engineering modules had been lowered to 33%, and that students could carry on even if they failed some modules. They said: ‘This conflicts with adequately rigorous preparation for a professional career.’

At Bradford, the assessors noted that civil engineering students could get by with a 25% mark, while at Sheffield Hallam they were concerned that academic standards were not being maintained in the electrical engineering department. Other departments causing concern included electrical engineering in Plymouth, where the assessors suggested that some students had been awarded degrees that they may not have earned, and at Kent the external examiners, who are supposed to guarantee quality across the system, played a ‘limited role in the assurance of standards.’

Lack of intellectual challenge or academic rigour were features of the building department at South Bank and media studies at Derby. By contrast, the assessors found that general engineering standards at Durham were ‘comparable with the best in the UK’. At Kent, the intellectual challenge of American studies was ‘very considerable’. At Bristol, the electrical engineering courses were ‘rigorous and of a high standard’. Students who applied themselves achieved excellent results and could look forward to rewarding careers.

Figures published yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency made it possible to compile a league table based on the proportion of first-class degrees awarded by each institution. The table favours those such as Cambridge, Imperial and the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology- the top three- that have large numbers of graduates in maths, science and engineering, where the proportion of firsts is always higher than in the arts.

Apart from that, the table closely reflects the officially assessed quality of each university’s teaching. Notable exceptions include Salford (38) and Bradford (52), both technology-oriented universities that come near the bottom of the teaching quality table, and-conversely-York (17) and Lancaster (57), both highly rated for teaching but predominantly arts-based.

The Open University (82), which is highly ranked for teaching, owes its relatively lowly position in the firsts table to its policy of admitting all-comers. Hull (81), where the teaching has been assessed as excellent in eight of the 20 departments inspected, owes its lowly ranking to its well-known reluctance to award firsts. Similarly, West of England (75), where seven out of 16 departments have been rated excellent, appears to be awarding fewer firsts than it might.

John Clare

/UK News, Thursday 9 July, 1998/

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