Bad arguments about academic standards
Geoffrey Alderman (ex-University of London, now University of Buckingham) has been sounding off about academic standards. The argument is that university authorities are so anxious about their place in the league tables that they pressurize powerless lecturers to pass students who should rightly fail, to condone cheating and to lower standards across the board – all in the interests of getting more firsts and 2.1s, and so proving the success of students and staff alike.
In other words what once a 2.1 is now a first, what was a 2.2 is now a 2.1 and so on down.
Perhaps Alderman sees different sides and different areas of higher education from those that I know. But – while I share his gloom about some aspects of the league table and “outcome” culture, which is no better in the university sector than in the health service or primary schools -- overall his rant looks like a pretty feeble, knee-jerk analysis to me.
Over the last thirty years, Cambridge exam results have changed in something like the way Alderman claims. That is to say that the third class degree has virtually disappeared (except in cases of personal tragedy), and the 2.2 is now looked upon by many students as a terrible disappointment. That is despite the fact that large numbers of the middle-aged great and the good achieved no better.
But this change is much more a reflection of changing student culture and aspirations than of any collusion on our part to ‘mark up’. Fifty years ago in Cambridge there really were a still significant minority among the students, who were here for the sport and the parties, or occasionally for more honourable forms of self-improvement (art, acting, music) not wholly compatible with success in the Tripos. Many of these were happy enough with a lousy degree, if that was the price you had to pay for the other forms of experience. For better or worse (and mostly – but not entirely -- for better), that kind of student hardly exists any longer. Our students are determined to do well and so they do. Add to this the fact that (for better or worse again) we are much more careful to make it clear exactly what we expect of them – and it’s hardly a surprise that the third class has become a thing of the past. We’d be doing something frightfully wrong if it hadn’t.
If anything, Alderman’s got it the wrong way round. Our problem is that we don’t give high enough marks, not that we mark too generously.
I should stress at this point (before anyone detects a hint here) that I am not marking exams this year, and that all our papers are checked and double-checked by over-worked external examiners. The process is as fair as it could be. But our difficulty has been always to make ourselves use (as we put it) “the full mark range”. Traditionally, in my Faculty, we have marked each script out of 200, with 70% being a first class mark. For years and years when I first started teaching at Cambridge I rarely saw a mark over 145 (also expressed as “alpha minus query minus”), which at 72.5% was generally treated as a stratospheric first.
It’s very hard to average over 70% if 72.5% is about the best you can get. And so, of course, from time immemorial we had to resort to all kinds of other strategies (like mark spread and preponderance) if we wanted to do justice to the candidates.
If we’re being any more generous in our marking now (and we do try), that’s because it’s fair, and long overdue.
I also have an anxiety about Alderman’s line on cheating. Unless there are an awful lot of un-caught criminals out there, it is in fact extremely rare. Far from it being condoned. I have always seen it treated with appropriate severity. But I’m also pleased to say that I’ve seen appropriate compassion displayed to the culprit. For in almost every case, this too is a personal tragedy: the result of panic, desperation, fear, and in the end immature stupidity. The old principle of loving the sinner while hating the sin is probably the best guide here.
But the truth is that most students work hard, do well, treat the exams with impeccable probity and deserve their 2.1s and more.