Tuesday, June 24, 2008

University Degrees in the News

Each summer we're used to another set of record A level (and GCSE) grades and the consequent media furore about whether or not the exams are getting easier. Just lately, however, the spotlight seems to have been on university degrees.

First, one 'whistle-blowing' academic admits that foreign students are awarded degrees - often at Masters level - without even a decent command of English. I'm guessing that may be easier in the natural sciences than for arts and social sciences, but in fact the allegation is that a blind eye is turned to plagiarism or even supervisor writing essays for their students!

I have to say I can think of one or two students I've known who seem to have struggled with the course - perhaps due only to their English being not up to scratch. My experience suggests the problem isn't as prevalent as made out, but then it's reasonable I suppose to assume that the students you see in seminars or down the pub are the ones with a reasonable grasp of English, and it's the people you never see that we should be worried about...

Now the QAA watchdog has apparently issued a warning that degree classifications are arbitrary. (Perhaps they should be assigned by lottery?). To a certain extent, this is an obvious and unavoidable problem. Not only does marking essays involve an amount of inherent subjectivity, calling for difficult adjudication as to whether students are wrong or merely arguing for something you personally disagree with, but the banding of all students into 1st, 2:i, 2:ii, 3rd, pass and fail is an attempt to divide a continuous spectrum into very few distinct groups. Of course the top 2:i will almost certainly be considerably closer to the bottom 1st than to the bottom 2:i.

Then, of course, there's variation between institutions, hinted at in the article. I'm sure that if any Oxbridge student went elsewhere and did a similar amount of work they could get a first, but can we give all students - or even the majority of them - firsts? The fact is a 2:i from Oxbridge isn't perceived to be equal to a 2:i from an ex-Poly red brick, and that's probably the reality in most cases too.

All this is complicated by rising fees that raise the question whether students are merely learners or customers. Faced with increased costs, they're increasingly required to see their degrees as investments and want to be sure of a return for their money - which means at least a decent degree and chance of profitable employability.


  1. The admission of foreign students who are unable to properly meet the requirements of the course seems to be a massive problem, generated by the fact that they are so much more profitable for universities than UK students. This is what happens when you incentivise public service providers through the market but get the structure of the incentives wrong. The university system in the UK risks becoming a degree mill in which all must receive their regulation 2:1.

    "I'm sure that if any Oxbridge student went elsewhere and did a similar amount of work they could get a first"

    Oh come on, really? Surely you mean that every half-decent Oxbrige student could get a first at a fairly average poly where the standards are lower? Or do you really think that a mediocre PPE student who gets a high 2:2 would've been awarded a 1st if they had attended the LSE?

  2. Article for you:

    Voting, Lotteries, and Justice
    Peter Stone
    Polity 40: 246-253

    -- of interest?

  3. Nick - Ok, it was an over-generalisation. Though Oxbridge students are straight A students and do generally do a lot of work, so I reckon they /could/ get Firsts anywhere.

    Fr - Thanks. I've read some of Peter Stone's stuff on lotteries, but wasn't aware of this one. Definitely sounds worth trying out if it concerns voting too.

  4. Hmm, well still can't agree. Most of the people on most courses at Russell Group universities in the UK are AAA or AAB. Although I think they are pushed less, there is clearly overlap in the talent pool as the interview system isn't perfect, people burn out or are late bloomers, people don't apply to Oxbridge in the first place. Also, external examiners at Oxbridge are generally drawn from other Russell Group universities. It would be odd if an Oxford mark of 63 (the mean average across all papers in PPE) is equivalent to a Durham or Edinburgh 70.

  5. Is the mean really that low?

    Like I said, it was an over-generalisation. Perhaps I should retreat to the weaker claim that more than 15% would get 1sts.

    Remember though I did say doing the same amount of work. Most of my friends got decent A level grades and went to good universities where they only wrote 3 essays a term. I guess there's a fuzzy line between the amount of work you do and amount of teaching support you get though - the essays wouldn't be so much use without the tutorials.

  6. Just checked, mean was 64 last year.


    Marks seem to be distributed on a weighted curve, not many people getting a 2:2, lots of people getting a low to average 2:1 and then a long tail stretching up to a really good first.

    I agree that Oxbridge students doing social science and humanities work harder. Many people at Warwick seemed to think the reading for seminars (ie tutorials) was optional...

  7. I taught at Oxford and was an undergraduate at a 60s redbrick. Comparing my old essay marks to the marks I, and other Oxford tutors gave, I'd estimate about a 5-8% point difference.

    That sucks, as it means the first I scraped would have been a mediocre 2:1 at Oxford!