Dumbing down?

Quite an interesting article in the Guardian this morning suggesting that university degrees have been dumbed down in the last decade or so. This is based on a parliamentary enquiry that shows that the number of students getting first-class degrees has doubled in the last 10 years.

The report seems to suggest that different universities require different levels of effort to get similar degrees. It also suggests that the value of a good degree from a Russell Group university could be very different to the value of a good degree from a non-Russell group university (or at least one that is low on the league tables). Although there may be some merit to this, I can’t really make an informed comment since I don’t have any real experience of the standards at different universities. I would, however, be surprised if there wasn’t some truth in this.

What about the University where I work. Although I haven’t actually been there for 10 years, it doesn’t seem like the level of the material that is taught has really changed (we aren’t making the material easier). We are however replacing some content in the later years with courses that teach skills (research methods, literature surveys). I found this slightly worrying, but suspect that it is probably necessary and since it is at the 10% level, probably doesn’t really substantially change the degree.

What does seem to be happening, though, is an implicit pressure to maintain high pass rates, especially in the earlier years (this pressure does apparently become more explicit if reasonable pass rates are not achieved). Although we haven’t really changed the level of the material that is taught, we do seem to set our exams with some thought to what kind of pass rates we may want to achieve. This isn’t necessarily the overriding consideration, but does seem to play at least some kind of role. In later years this is not as crucial on an exam by exam basis because students can fail some courses and still progress or graduate. Even this, however, worries me slightly. I don’t have a problem with students not being required to pass all courses in the final year of an Honours degree (or 2 years in the case of students doing taught Masters degrees), but I think we introduce this a year too soon, when the students probably do need to have a reasonable understanding of all the material.

Do I think we are giving many more first-class degrees and as a result have dumbed down our degrees. I’m not entirely sure: it still seems pretty hard to get a first-class degree, especially a good one. The high pass rates in early years, however, probably does put students through to later years who maybe won’t cope as well as they should. We also seem reluctant to fail students in these later years since they’ve already committed so much of their time to the degree. My impression is that it may well be easier to pass an advanced science degree than it was 10 years ago, but is probably not significantly easier to get a first-class degree. This is essentially why, in an earlier post, I was arguing for more granulating in the degree structure. This way students could graduate at appropriate times and there wouldn’t be as many students in later years who were struggling to cope, but who may pass anyway because of the reluctance to fail students at this stage of their degree.

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