Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades. Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills. Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve. Part of this has been a change in what marks mean. A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1. A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.
Some standards have genuinely improved. It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago. However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved. When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write. By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12. Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year. Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage. That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past. That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves. This is not the fault of students; it reflects a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.
The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem. When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.
- Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
- Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
- Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
- The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience. The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.
Much of this has gone by the board. Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix. (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.) Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals – that must mean that no progression is expected.
Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts. Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available. Students have limited personal contact with teachers. Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question. This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.
Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase. People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once. I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.