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“Dumbing Down”: higher grades for higher rankings?

(Illustration: Chris Harrisson)

(Illustration: Chris Harrisson)

In a poll by the Times Higher Education magazine, 77% of 500 academics asked say they feel coerced into giving out higher grades to students in order to improve the rankings of their universities. This comes at a time where many feel the UK’s University standards are “dumbing down.”

Seen as scandalous, universities have been lowering academic standards to ensure that more students pass. Though it improves or maintains university rankings, many feel it lowers staff motivation, as well as student incentive. Furthermore, with more and more schools initiating policies to make it harder for students to fail, quality is being sacrificed for quantity.

Lewis Elton, a visiting professor of higher education at the University of Gloucestershire says “If there is something very wrong with universities today, it is the imbalance in importance of research and of teaching and learning.”

In the past 10 years, the UK student population has grown significantly, yet the number of first class degrees for undergraduates has grown at an even higher rate (about a half). This has left people asking, are students getting smarter or are universities really “dumbing down”?

‘Though it improves university rankings, many feel it lowers staff motivation, as well as student incentive’

One of the first universities accused of lowering its standards to increase graduation rates was the Thames Valley University (TVU). In 1997, TVU lowered the passing threshold from 40 percent down to 30 percent.
In 2004, De Montfront University, after experiencing high failure rates among students, threatened the jobs of many academics if they didn’t award higher marks to pharmacy undergraduates.

Just last year, in 2007, Paul Buckland, a professor of archeology for 25 years at Bournemouth University, resigned when 10 out of 14 students that he failed, and described as “knuckle-draggingly thick,” were allowed to pass after their results were altered without his acknowledgement. An employment tribunal dealing with Professor Buckland’s case said “His views and his position as a senior academic were disregarded in a manner that he was entitled to regard as insulting.”

At the University of Sussex, it is evident that educators are being pressured into giving higher grades. One academic, who chooses to remain anonymous, says “We have reached a situation where students expect to attain at least a 2:1 grade and are disappointed when they do not. That creates a culture of expectation and entitlement that can mean academics raising grades.”

Many feel that these reported “dumbing down” incidents are of a very negative nature, and they take the merit out of academics. Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent says how “no one advocates dumbing down, but the unintentional outcome of the policies being pursued is the devaluation of academic education.”

Professor Furedi also commented on how universities now serve almost as businesses, lowering academic standards not only to improve ratings, but to attract more students and gain profit. He states “The introduction of a pseudo-market has given rise to an undergraduates-as-customers model. Academics are exhorted to become more student-centred and to do what they can to improve the ‘student experience.’”
There are, however, feelings of optimism felt towards the lowered academic standards. The optimists point out how the world is changing, and that these academic standards are lowered to adjust to these changes. Peter Williams, the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, says “What nonsense this all is. Standards will inevitably change over time, reflecting developments in the world at large. Whether they are the same as 10, 20, 30 years ago is irrelevant.”

Mr. Williams also argues that the debate’s focus is extraneous: “Are standards falling? Not the right question. Is higher education doing what it should be doing – improving the life chances of its students, offering opportunities hitherto denied to all but a few, and giving us a better chance to solve the problems of both today and tomorrow? Undoubtedly.”

Moreover, many, including Professor Lewis Elton, feel that the first degree is becoming less and less significant regardless of the “dumbing down” fiasco. With more and more students graduating into a competitive job market, post-graduate degrees are now what matter most. “Some academics may get upset and see soft skills in curriculums as contributing to dumbing down, but I’m not sure I would worry as much as they do. The first degree has changed – it’s much more of an ‘opening-the-doors’ degree now, rather than a passport for a lifelong career.”

Mantz Yorke, a professor at Lancaster University, defended the lowered university standards by saying it offers more opportunity to students outside the classroom, like travel or part-time work. However, he did also note that this could be distressing if the students focus on those aspects of life too much and not on their studies.

The pressure put on universities to award higher grades is seen by many as scandalous. However, it appears unlikely that standards from previous years will be retained in UK universities. With the world changing, university standards are bound to change with it.

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