UK university standards "sacrificed": top academic

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British universities are handing out record numbers of first-class degrees in a “grotesque” attempt to climb league tables and attract lucrative overseas students, a senior academic said on Tuesday.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic standards watchdog at the University of London, raised concerns about the quality of marking, students’ literacy and a tendency to downplay plagiarism.

He said senior university officials were “obsessed with getting high rankings” in the tables and have pressured teaching staff and external examiners to boost the number of first class and upper second degrees.

“There are universities where instructions go round to staff reminding them (that) awarding more top-class degrees will push their institution up both the national and international league tables,” Alderman will say in a lecture on Tuesday, according to extracts published in the Independent.

“The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque ‘bidding’ game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the altar of public image.”

The number of first class degrees awarded each year has nearly doubled from 16,708 in 1996-97 to 33,030 in 2006-07, according to figures on the Higher Education Statistics Agency website.

The total number of students taking their first degree rose by just 20 percent over the same period.

Examining bodies and ministers have repeatedly denied accusations that school and university exams are being “dumbed down” to improve results.

However, Alderman says he has evidence that lecturers have come under pressure to “mark positively” to compensate for poor literacy standards.

That approach is often taken with international students who pay much-needed fees, but may struggle with the English language, he said.

He also says they are given more lenient punishments if they are found to have plagiarized material.

“I have heard it seriously argued that international students who plagiarize should be treated more leniently than British students because of ‘different cultural norms’,” said Alderman, a professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham.

“It is indeed rare nowadays for habitual plagiarists to be expelled from their universities.”

Universities UK, the body which represents 132 universities, said the British exam system was “sound and well-established”.

“It is also well-respected internationally and has informed and influenced parallel developments worldwide,” it said.

“All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university, including through the external examiner system.

“In addition, all institutions have comprehensive policies relating to plagiarism and will take disciplinary action against students caught submitting work that is not their own.

“Many universities are already using advanced anti-plagiarism software to make sure that this is enforced.”

Editing by Tim Castle and Paul Casciato