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Next entry: Fraser Nelson on the prize awaiting David Cameron
Previous entry: Beanbag learning
Thursday June 26 2008

Here’s an interesting twist on a familiar argument.  This is Terence Kealey writing in yesterday’s Telegraph:
image

The degree system in British universities is “rotten”, with grades based on “arbitrary and unreliable” measures, says Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the government-sponsored body responsible for maintaining university standards. Not since Gerald Ratner announced that his products were “crap” has a chief executive made such a suicidal remark. In this case it is not true.

Williams’s major complaint is that whereas, 10 years ago, only 45 per cent of students got firsts or upper seconds, now some 60 per cent do. This, he says, reflects grade inflation.

So far so predictable.  Grade inflation.  But of course.

But here comes the surprise:

Actually, because our admissions procedures tend to work well (i.e., we tend to admit only students with appropriate A-levels) 100 per cent of students should be getting firsts or upper seconds. The only students to get lower seconds and thirds should be those who succumb to laziness, drunkenness and the other ills that student flesh is heir to. Since no one reviewing our universities can doubt that the students are more serious than ever, no one need be surprised that their degrees are getting better.

Because the league tables reward universities for awarding firsts and upper seconds, there is, admittedly, pressure to inflate the top grades, but my experience of the examination system in Britain is that underhand practices are uncommon. I hate to sound like a minister or Dr Pangloss, but students are getting better grades because they are working harder. We should be pleased.

So what does Kealey think Williams is up to?  Here’s his answer:

Williams is being political.  The QAA is power-hungry and resents the autonomy our universities have retained in this target-driven world.  He wants more bureaucracy and he wants his QAA to supply it.

The QAA is already too intrusive.  The best universities are in America, yet American higher education bureaucracy is trivial.  There are no external examiners at American universities, for example, and the US equivalents of the QAA are pussy cats – which is why American unversities flourish.

The QAA and other bureaucracies damage higher education because universities flourish only by self-regulation.  Universities do best when they are independent, because scholars are innately self-critical, so only when external agencies displace self-criticism with arbitrary ticks in boxes do standards slip.

It’s the QAA, not our degree classification, that is arbitrary and unreliable.

So there.