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28 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:21pm

Letter of the week: The days of 11-plus were worse

By New Statesman

I was shocked and disturbed to read the piece by Harry Lambert (“The great university con”) offering a highly critical picture of the UK higher education sector. I have been lecturing in HE, in philosophy, for almost 40 years. I have never been asked by a group of students collectively, or by any manager to raise a set of marks (unless there was a reason to do so, such as a disturbance in an exam room). I teach students who grow to love and become excited by their subject.

There is a hidden assumption behind the article that more must mean worse. It rails against “grade inflation”. But nowhere does it mention the divide in the 1970s, where, by the mere accident of failing an exam aged 11, you were sent to a secondary modern school where you were given a syllabus that made it virtually impossible to go to university. I wager that many of those – mainly working-class people – were intelligent enough to have obtained a degree, but in fact they ended up working in shops and factories.

Professor Alison Assiter
Department of Philosophy, UWE Bristol

The great University debate

I largely agree with Harry Lambert’s observations (“The great university con”, 23 August). The analogy to the frog in boiling water applies to my 30-year career as an academic, watching governance slowly taken away from the university senate to a small number of corporate-type executives in a hierarchical system that portrays quality assurance processes as quality of education.

But Lambert makes two errors. First, comparing averages can be misleading. The competence of graduates nowadays is observed by averaging over half the population whereas in the “good old days” it was over a more academically able and better engaged 15 per cent of the population. That subset of students is still going through the system and, despite monotonically decreasing resources and the throttling bureaucratic web around me, I am able to stretch them with challenging and interesting coursework. I am proud to see them out there, solving problems they had not seen before in my tutorials.

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Second, the past was not universally great as a point of calibration. For instance, several members of the present ruling class had their education during and before the times of Margaret Thatcher, having written a large number of essays and graduating with good honours degrees. One of them, who mastered that art rather well, is supposed to have written two essays recently, one favouring either side of a question of great national importance, so that he might pick the one to publish at the very last minute that suited his selfish career aspirations best.

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Professor Mahesan Niranjan
Southampton University

Harry Lambert’s excellent article provides a long overdue exposure to a major aspect of declining academic standards in the UK. Everything he says is in accord with my experience during the latter stages of my 40-year career as a teacher in schools and universities.

Lionel Robbins is quoted as saying that, “The essential aim of a first degree should be to teach students how to think.” But that process should commence at the age of five and continue throughout every educational level. However, because primary and secondary schools are placed in league tables according to their results in Sats, GCSE and A-levels, teaching becomes strictly directed towards those goals. Instead of developing the inquiring mind, there is concentration upon instrumental exam-orientated learning. Indeed, I was teaching in one primary school where 40 per cent of pupils were having private tuition to bolster their chance in the 11-plus and Sats.

Although it is now much more likely that students will obtain a good degree, they are being deprived of an education that will develop their creative abilities. Another step on this road to educational deprivation is the abundance of ready-made learning packages that are available via the internet, which makes plagiarism much harder to detect. For example, the plays of Shakespeare are available online with fully annotated commentaries that explain every nuance of poetical meaning. Mathematical and scientific ideas are presented in easily digestible blocks that include animated diagrams and hints towards solutions.

One particular instance from my own experience relates to my work in teacher education. I was approached by a student who asked what support was on offer to her in a forthcoming mathematics exam. Although she was intending to become a primary school teacher, she told me she was dyslexic and needed help in reading the questions. Another example concerns a PhD student occupied with a thesis on environmental science. His knowledge of basic arithmetic was so poor that he couldn’t tell the difference between 0.001 and 0.100. Finally, there was the instance of another PhD student of my acquaintance who relied totally on computer spell-check (he also claimed to be dyslexic).

PN Ruane
Chelmsford, Essex

Harry Lambert is spot on about declining academic standards in our universities starting with the practice of paying universities per capita for taking more and more students.

As a head of department in a northern university in the early 1990s we had over the years an attrition rate of about 3 per cent from our first year modules. However, as the number of students dramatically inclined and their quality declined we ended up in the early 1990s failing over 30 per cent. It was made clear to me that the majority would pass upon resits. Yet over 11 per cent still failed as we applied the same standards we had for years.

Senior management insisted starkly that the normal 3 per cent failure rate would be processed by the resit examination board. “How else do you think your staff’s salaries will be paid?” Duly, after a small but ineffective skirmish, the attrition standard of 3 per cent was applied and academic standards began their long and sharp decline.

Phil Lee
Elslack, North Yorkshire

“The great university con” by Harry Lambert superbly draws together everything I have thought working in higher education from 1980 for about 25 years, and others’ current experiences – which is a great shame.

The sharing of good practice in the polytechnics – via their validating body, the Council for National Academic Awards – was invaluable in developing courses. This came to an abrupt end when the polys were vested as universities. I was teaching at a poly then and some academic staff thought we would get better funding, which we didn’t; the staff of the business school were all made individual cost-centres.

I was a member of the art school’s academic board and asked at the first meeting after we became a university that it should be recorded in the board’s minutes. How appropriate it was that we were vested as universities before 12 noon on 1 April.

David Cockayne
Lymm, Cheshire

In addition to peddling the myth that increasing student numbers invariably leads to a lowering of academic standards, Harry Lambert has not considered the wider social and political context in which universities are forced to operate. Marketisation of the school sector and public examinations is a key factor that was not discussed by Lambert.

Examination boards, formerly owned by individual universities or regional consortiums of universities are now private-sector companies or charities. Such organisations need to show a profit and therefore compete for customers in the educational market place. Parental “choice” now means that schools must compete for pupils and are judged on the achievements of their students in GCSE and A-level examination. Examination boards compete for customers in the form of schools.

Hence the marketplace drives down standards in the school sector in the same way as it drives down the price of commercial goods.

The neoliberal doctrine that dominates all aspects of our society does not allow for education as personal development or as a social benefit. It focuses only on the benefit of a degree in terms of an individual’s future salary and status. Thus students are positioned as customers, provided with loans to purchase qualifications, and universities turned into businesses to supply this commodity. The withdrawal of direct government funding and the removal of the cap on student recruitment means that universities are dependent on their ranking in league tables to attract their fee-paying customers. Since the number of “good” degrees awarded is a key metric in determining league table position, grade inflation is the inevitable result.

Dr Sue Dunn
Birkbeck College, London WC1

I am a PhD candidate and teach tutorials at a highly ranked Russell Group university. I agree with many of the points made by Harry Lambert in regard to grade inflation as well as lowering of standards.

When I was an undergraduate student about ten years ago, I would have been content with a 2:1 grade and not tried to appeal it. Now, I have students attending my office hours, crying and begging me to get their work remarked as they consider themselves failures if they do not get a First. There is so much pressure on students to achieve high marks as they all seem to be convinced (and possibly rightly so) that in order to be competitive in the job market, they must aim for a first-class degree.

As outlined in the article, ringing true to my own experience, departments are pushing for lenient marking and going easy on the students when grading them. I have been told off in the past for marking too harshly and being too strict on students. I do not think I am; I am holding them to the same standards I was held to when I was an undergraduate.

In my social science department, it is an open secret that marks are added to exam grades occasionally, bumping up a 2:2 to a 2:1. However, talking to other PhD tutors in different departments, they admit to often being asked to mark with leniency, not only for undergraduate but also postgraduate taught papers and exams. Having seen papers awarded high grades that have spelling mistakes, creative referencing on the border to plagiarism and a lack of structure that should exclude them from a pass grade, I think it is worthwhile to mention that grade inflation does not stop at undergraduate level, being ripe and rife at postgraduate level too. When Master’s degrees are the new undergraduate degree, the lowering of standards is even more unnerving.

Susan Williams
(The letter writer has asked for her real name to be withheld)

Harry Lambert’s cover story belittles university students and graduates, as well as our universities. While the New Statesman’s leader (22 August) acknowledges that the stereotype of students as “indolent hedonists” is false, it neglects to mention that graduates are more likely to be employed, less reliant on social security and use fewer NHS resources. Graduates earn on average £10,000 more per year than non-graduates.

We need more graduates, including more part-time and mature students, to meet the needs of our changing economy. Demand is outweighing supply: employers have told the CBI that they expect the greatest demand for skills over the next three to five years will be for people with higher level skills. Students are not “wasting their time”, nor are universities.

Our universities have maintained their reputations and autonomy for a reason – they are committed to constant improvement. That’s why universities are protecting the value of qualifications by promising consistently to provide complete transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees. They know it is essential that the public maintains faith in the value of a degree and confidence that university degrees challenge students to achieve their full potential.

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice chancellor of Brunel University London

Harry Lambert’s diatribe against British universities is an unbalanced connection of disconnected facts and assertions that fail to substantiate the claim that higher education is a huge “con”. His piece is driven by a fogeyish nostalgia for a university system that allowed less than 10 per cent of the population to graduate with a degree, so didn’t need to worry about skills or standards.

It draws simplistic conclusions from complex pieces of research. Most importantly, the article’s central claims are simply false. British universities make great efforts to teach basic skills. They have elaborate systems to ensure standards are maintained. Large numbers of applicants are rejected; 14 per cent of applicants fail to find a place at any university.

Most of my colleagues relish teaching “difficult” topics. Lecturers do not give students the contents to exams. Any that do should be, and are, subject to disciplinary procedures.

British universities have not got everything right. They are still making an unplanned and difficult transition from elite to mass higher education, and from funding by student fees not generation taxation. That process needs a serious conversation about the value and content of a degree education in a society in which a third of 18-year-olds go to university, and where student expectations have changed fast.

Professor Jon Wilson
King’s College London, WC2

Imagine you are a student at a British university, and a manifest error has been made in your assessment. These things can happen, albeit rarely. Maybe there was a mistake on an exam paper, an assessment that was out of line with a module’s teaching, or an aberrant marker. Might you not expect the university to acknowledge the error and fix it? Surely that is what mature and responsible institutions do.

But not Harry Lambert. He wants universities to fail more students, and is appalled to hear that one university department has admitted an error and changed students’ grades. Obsessed with marks but rather less interested in education, he grasps any anecdote that might suggest that standards have collapsed in British universities.

Like many similar attacks, “The great university con” leans heavily on contorted anecdotal interpretation. Lambert makes no engagement with graduate employment figures, student satisfaction data, international league tables, nor any of the other measures by which British universities are assessed by prospective students. All these measures give university managers much to concentrate their minds, but overall they demonstrate a sector in excellent health, giving the nation outstanding value.

British universities are doing a lot of things right. If we have made one mistake in our work as educators, however, it is that we have produced commentators who believe that argument by anecdote is a legitimate method by which to trash the work of tens of thousands of students and academics.

Andrew McRae
Professor of English; dean of Postgraduate Research and the Doctoral College, University of Exeter

I graduated with a 2:2 from a Russell Group university in 1980, having faithfully attended lectures, seminars and regular meetings with my tutor. I studied in the library six days a week and sometimes late into the night. I was once chastised for missing a day to attend an event organised by the Politics Society in Westminster.

Thirty-six years later my son attended the same university, did the same course and got a 2:2. He soon got disillusioned with silent seminars and stopped attending lectures as they were all downloadable. He didn’t hand in “must do or fail” coursework and never saw a tutor. No one noticed his lack of engagement. The university refused to talk to me about concerns for his welfare because he was an adult.

Not only are many of the elite universities indulging in a con, but they are hugely negligent in terms of student welfare.

Simon Shaw
Via email

The article on the degrading of university degrees reminded of the story told to me by a friend who was a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Bristol in the early 1960s. At their first lexture, Professor Stephan Körner, a renowned scholar of Kant, would greet his new stiudents with the remark, “The course here is very hard. Even God would not get a First in philosophy at Bristol.”

Leon Kreitzman
London SW2

Remain or shine

Brexit and the weather. We can do nothing about either yet we talk of little else.

Stefan Badham
Portsmouth

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler