Keep it stupid, simple
Is dumbing down a reality on UK campuses? Most respondents to our online poll highlighted dangers to academic standards, but they were split about whether degrees are worth less than they were before. John Gill weighs up the facts
In the past decade, the proportion of first-class degrees awarded by UK universities has risen by more than half, even as total student numbers have grown by a fifth.
At face value, these figures appear to tell a phenomenal success story, yet the frequency with which the charge of "dumbing down" rears its head is surely too high to be ignored.
But what are rank-and-file academics to make of claims that their sector's reputation is being eroded as standards fall, student attitudes change and the sector faces up to the fact that its raison d'etre is no longer the pursuit of knowledge but rather the training of the workforce of tomorrow?
These allegations cover a multitude of perceived sins, and with much of the debate framed by the media, which operate on the basis that bad news makes better copy than good, the complexities are rarely done justice.
Universities, academics, students and the Government are among those facing accusations over such issues as admissions targets, retention rates and degree classifications.
In an attempt to give a snapshot of what UK academics make of the charges levelled at the sector, Times Higher Education has conducted an online poll.
More than 500 readers responded to the survey, which covered bread-and-butter issues of the dumbing-down debate with the aim of gaining a view from the campuses.
Responses to the headline questions about whether or not there was a charge to answer were mixed. To the statement "UK higher education remains the 'gold standard' internationally", 41 per cent of respondents said they agreed and 37 per cent disagreed.
However, a majority of 52 per cent disagreed with the assertion that "reports that universities are dumbing down are incorrect or overstated", while 42 per cent agreed.
In each case, opinion was divided between two large opposing camps.
What is interesting, however, is that in questions dealing with the specifics of what is often perceived to be dumbing down, the responses were far more one-sided.
- more than 80 per cent felt that resourcing constraints were adversely affecting academic standards, while just 11 per cent disagreed;
- almost 70 per cent disagreed with the assertion that a rise in the number of first-class and upper-second-class degrees was evidence of improving standards;
- about 77 per cent saw plagiarism by students as a growing problem;
- more than 70 per cent agreed that the need to maintain acceptable retention rates had led to lower failure rates on courses at their institution.
Although it is important to acknowledge that the participants in the Times Higher Education survey are a self-selecting group and to recognise that any poll of this sort has limitations, the responses seem to add weight to the argument, as it is popularly made, that dumbing down plays a part in almost all the points of concern.
In fact, one of the only questions where the results are less than clear cut was on the impact of international student recruitment.
Some 43 per cent said this had no adverse effect on academic standards at their institution, while 37 per cent said that it did and 20 per cent did not know.
The results, then, seem to support the not-inconsiderable quantity of anecdotal evidence that is frequently wheeled out to support claims that standards are falling. But what do those who have studied the issues involved make of the arguments that have become common currency in recent years?
Lewis Elton, visiting professor of higher education at the University of Gloucestershire, honorary professor of higher education at University College London and visiting scholar at the University of Surrey, believes that it is necessary to "get back to the fundamentals" to address what is happening to the sector.
"If there is something very wrong with universities today, it is the imbalance in importance of research and of teaching and learning," he says.
Whereas universities have in times past undervalued research, today they undervalue teaching, Elton says. Before we can set things right again, he believes, we must recognise that curriculums that ask students to regurgitate knowledge rather than display creativity make it easier to produce reliable examination results.
However, Elton notes, the more reliable assessment is, the less valid it is in terms of "worthwhile" learning. "Examining of worthwhile objectives is not an exact science, but it is better to examine worthwhile objectives less exactly than worthless objectives more exactly."
He continues: "The demand for the regurgitation of knowledge inevitably leads to 'teaching to the test'. Such teaching is driven further by the importance attached to it through league tables, which concentrate on who goes up ... This leads to a misleading impression that it is always necessary to do better; merely to stand still in anything - however good that is - is not enough."
One thing that Elton says must be curtailed for the good of standards in higher education is external pressure - from the Government, employers and other groups - which he says has led to a devaluing of the professionalism of teachers and examiners, and a corresponding fall in trust in their professionalism.
"Replacing trust by accountability is very expensive," he says. "The present system, and indeed any externally driven system, encourages conservatism in teachers and teaching and discourages innovation."
To remedy this "sad situation", Elton says the sector needs full programmes at postgraduate level for the training and development of both teachers and examiners.
He also suggests that quality assessment should focus more sharply on the failures of individuals, that civil servants should "get off the back" of the profession, and that collegiality should be "restored" to universities "with vice-chancellors as their first servants".
Warning that "top-down managerialism distorts academic values", he says: "If all that sounds like a return to a golden past that never existed, it is not. There was and is much that is wrong with universities, but the remedy is to make them more business-like, not to make them more like business."
Mantz Yorke, visiting professor of education at Lancaster University, has a problem with the terms in which the dumbing-down debate is framed. Like Elton, he believes that there is substance to the view that things have changed in higher education and continue to do so.
"Things are much more complex than the term 'dumbing down' suggests," he explains. "My view is that over a period of time we have changed what we expect students to do at first-degree level, with an increasing emphasis on 'employability', and that has its implications.
"Some academics may get upset and see soft skills in curriculums as contributing to dumbing down, but I'm not sure I would worry as much as they do. The first degree has changed - it's much more of an 'opening-the-doors' degree now, rather than a passport for a lifelong career.
"Graduates nowadays need to distinguish themselves in the labour market by having something extra to offer. This could be a postgraduate qualification or some particularly valuable experience, for example."
He insists that it is not always appropriate to refer to these changes pejoratively simply because they differ from the old order.
"Higher education has changed, and students can now do things in a different order. When I went through university, which was quite a long while ago now, there was hardly anything to do with employability - now there's a lot more in curriculums. Students are doing things differently nowadays, and not necessarily for the worse."
Yorke, who has carried out research in several of the areas that some might see as key to the dumbing-down debate, says one problem is that many of the issues raised cannot be easily investigated.
"The detail of the curriculum is often at too fine a level for research that can be generalised across the autonomous higher education system, and even where the curriculums are homogeneous - as at A level - comparisons of the past with the present have proved difficult," he says.
One area that Yorke identifies as being important is the emphasis on learning outcomes and explicit criteria. These, he says, "tell students quite clearly what it is they are going to be assessed on and how they are going to be assessed".
Being clear about this can help students, but Yorke worries that it can also have a detrimental effect (just as Elton has concerns about "teaching to the test").
"If students know what they are expected to do, they can target their efforts - that's good," Yorke says, "but the downside is, possibly, that they will focus on that alone and not on wider learning. Survey data tend to suggest that when it comes to doing extra reading, students, especially the younger ones, are not doing as much as they might."
This is a view mirrored by the Times Higher Education survey, in which 80 per cent of respondents said students were taking an increasingly instrumental approach to their studies.
Yorke said: "That can be seen as rational, a maximising of the return on their investment of time, not least because they might want to do other things and, increasingly, they might be doing part-time work."
Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, argues that this change in student attitudes - rational or not - is a dangerous development.
"Whether or not you consider this to be dumbing down depends, of course, on what you think higher education is actually for. If it is basically the liberal definition of developing one's intellectual capabilities, then people judge the effectiveness of the curriculum by what they have got out of it, and a more instrumental attitude indicates that people are pursuing it for narrower ends related to jobs and status.
"That's what the surveys of students invariably show, and I think that's a bad thing; but there are people who say the liberal approach is only one approach and that universities were always vocational training schools of one kind or another and were also originally highly commercial because lecturers had to hawk their wares to students in the streets.
"I would rather we didn't use the phrase 'dumbing down'," says Brown, "partly because it covers so many different things, and partly because there's great danger that you simply play into the hands of the right-wing agenda that there are too many universities and students. I just don't think we know whether that's the case or not.
"I think there's a strong argument that the more instrumental approach is not healthy because it implies, not least, that students know better than academics what they should be studying. Once you get into that, I am afraid you really are into genuine dumbing down. Although student views are undoubtedly important, nobody can really say until well after the event what benefits they have received."
If higher education hears the accusation of falling standards frequently enough, A levels arguably get even more flak.
The chorus of "dumbing down" when results are published is an event you could set your clock by, and it is undeniable that the rise in top grades has been unremitting recently.
According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the average tariff point score for full-time first-degree first-year students whose highest qualification on entry was A levels or equivalent has risen every year for the past five years, from 314.4 in 2002-03 to 330.3 last year.
Whether this is evidence of grade inflation is open to question, but whatever the answer, Yorke believes that universities can cope with any shortfall in standards or ability among new undergraduates by adopting the correct approach to assessment.
"For incoming students, the game is quite different at university level," he says. "Part of the work I've been involved in has been about stressing the importance of assessment for learning early in a programme so that students know what the game is and know how to play it rather than go a long way down the road and come a cropper at the end."
Adopting the right approach is important if universities are to maintain their financially vital student retention levels without having to prop them up artificially - another charge levelled by the dumbing-down brigade.
Of participants in the Times Higher Education poll, two thirds believed that the need to maintain acceptable retention rates had led to lower failure rates at their institution.
Although it is not entirely clear cut, this suggests that students are being passed when they do not deserve to be - but evidence of this is largely anecdotal.
Yorke says: "There are a lot of stories and a lot of anecdotal evidence around this, but what credence can be put on them is very doubtful.
"Some institutions have gone for year-long curriculums in the first year, rather than semester-based curriculums, so that students have more time to get up to speed rather than face a failure round about Christmas-time if they haven't got up to speed with learning in higher education. It is quite a severe challenge for many who are coming from a fairly low base in terms of what they need to do in higher education or what the standards are.
"The funding regime must also have an effect. If you penalise institutions for a student not completing a year by clawing back money, then there's obviously an incentive for institutions not to let students go."
The question of funding is key: money, as is so often the case, is at the root of many of the other aspects of university standards.
Academics taking part in the survey felt overwhelmingly that resourcing constraints were adversely affecting academic standards, even though it is unfair to say simply that funding has fallen.
Figures supplied by the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that the unit of funding fell significantly throughout the early and mid-1990s, but that decline levelled off around 1997 and has steadily increased since then.
This is due in large part to the introduction of fees, but regardless of the provenance of the extra money, the sum received per full-time-equivalent student by universities has risen from £5,500 in 1997 to £6,400 this year, or £7,000 if capital funding is taken into account.
According to Yorke, however, there is a "hidden unit-of-resource issue" over the priority given to teaching and learning at individual institutions.
It is, he says, not so much about the "total envelope" but rather the way the resources are distributed, particularly the split between teaching and research.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, has carried out research on how much study students do and how much contact time they receive.
"The evidence seems to show that money is being used not to provide teaching for students so much as (to support) research and researchers," he said.
"Unfortunately we can't see whether students are getting less than they were (before) in terms of contact with tutors and so on, because we don't have any data on what they used to get.
"But certainly there's a lot of anecdotal information along those lines, and given how little contact students, in some cases, do get, it would not surprise me if it's less now than it was."
This view tallies with that of our respondents, 78 per cent of whom agreed that teaching on programmes has suffered because of fewer contact hours and larger group sizes.
In spite of his concerns about contact hours, Bekhradnia, like many of the other experts in the field, said he was not comfortable with the prominence given to dumbing down, describing it as a "greatly overused notion" with little hard evidence to back it up.
"I doubt if the best students are any less good than they were," he explains. "I certainly think there's a wider range of students coming into university, and there are pressures - market pressures, funding pressures and recruiting pressures - on universities to lower standards, but I expect for the most part that they have been resisted.
"I know every year we get (a person from) The Sunday Times phoning around pretending to be a foreign student with lots of money who wants to be let in, but I don't think that happens on any great scale.
"I do worry about things like what universities are providing students with and the pressures on them to spend their time and money doing other things, but we don't have any evidence about that."
A survey of the scale and type conducted by Times Higher Education will not, of course, appease those concerned about a lack of evidence, but Liverpool Hope's Brown asserts that, despite its obvious limitations, the poll does have value. Acknowledging the difficulties of broaching as broad and inexact a term as "dumbing down" through research, he adds that "after a while you have to take notice of what people say".
"You can talk about the performance of individual students and probably the performance of individual departments, but when you start to generalise, then problems occur and you get such ludicrous distortions that in the end you can't say much that's very meaningful.
"But I still think that we ought to have a go as a sector at defining minimum levels of student achievement; we ought to be able to say, 'look, this course isn't giving students a worthwhile experience, it's not producing a worthwhile degree.'
"So in spite of all the problems, I still think that is possible within certain broad parameters, because if you don't do that then you are simply in a market where quality is determined by what people are prepared to pay, and you end up with higher education being reduced simply to being a screening process for the labour market.
"It is worth making the effort because the alternatives are even worse, and I think that events will lead us in that action because threats to quality are so clear now that action has to be taken to reassure people about standards."
'POLICIES RESULT IN THE DEVALUATION OF THE CONTENT OF ACADEMIC EDUCATION'
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology, University of Kent
The anti-academic ethos dominating UK universities is fuelled by the institutionalisation of a system of control through formal auditing, the imperative of widening participation and the introduction of a pseudo-market.
No one advocates dumbing down, but the unintentional outcome of the policies being pursued is the devaluation of academic education.
Auditing culture has fostered conformity and the homogenisation of behaviour. Academics under pressure to tick the right boxes often end up distracted from pursuing research organic to their disciplinary interests.
Quality assurance and the research assessment exercise discourage the use of professional judgment. The compulsion to work to the RAE agenda sacrifices quality for quantity. That more monographs are published than before cannot be doubted. Unfortunately, the main beneficiary is the paper industry.
Widening access is pursued as an end in itself. Its advocates care little about the intellectual merit of participation. Academic-lite practices have been introduced to remove the barriers posed by expectations of academic achievement.
In many fields, the intellectual content of an undergraduate degree has shrunk. At its most banal, life skills and work experience are credentialised and time-keeping is rewarded.
The introduction of a pseudo-market has given rise to an undergraduates-as-customers model. Academics are exhorted to become more student-centred and to do what they can to improve the "student experience".
Of course, the simplest way to improve the "student experience" is to give customers what they pay for. Student-friendly assessments and grade and degree inflation are inevitable consequences of a system where academics are asked to respond to the demands of their customers. Instead of cultivating intellectual curiosity in students, we encourage instrumentalism and cynicism.
Finally, higher education's internalisation of hollow management-speak suggests that dumbing down is not just what we do to our students, but is also what we do to ourselves.
Some of us genuinely believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, thereby proving that best practice makes you dumb.
'STANDARDS INEVITABLY CHANGE OVER TIME. WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS THAT they SHOULD BE RIGHT FOR TODAY'
Peter Williams, chief executive, Quality Assurance Agency
Are standards in higher education going up or coming down? The question is unanswerable - indeed meaningless - for two reasons: there is no generally accepted definition of "academic standards" and there is no baseline to use for comparisons.
Cassandras like to point to the decline of (undefined and unevidenced) academic standards as yet another sign of the country going to the dogs. Optimists, on the other hand, claim that the world has changed, the purposes of higher education have changed and the standards being achieved by a much greater number of students each year (although perhaps different from the standards of earlier centuries) are appropriate for those new purposes.
Underlying the pessimists' argument seems to be a belief that standards should never change, although it's not at all clear when the datum line should be set. Standards in 1600? 1700? 1850? 1950? The year that I graduated? For my part, I'm not impressed by claims that standards have fallen since the 1980s or the 1990s.
What nonsense this all is. Standards will inevitably change over time, reflecting developments in the world at large. Whether they are the same as 10, 20, 30 years ago is irrelevant.
What is important is that they should be right for today, and meet the diverse needs of society as they are now. As so often, "fitness for purpose" is the most useful approach or, to put it another way, the Aristotelian approach is to be preferred to the Platonic.
Increased participation brings with it inevitable, if sometimes unacknowledged, consequences. As higher education embraces more and more of the intellectual range of the population, it may need to redefine and expand the concept of academic standards.
Provided that it continues to recognise the very highest and most focused achievement, as well as broader and more modest, but no less valuable, accomplishment, there is nothing wrong with that.
Are standards falling? Not the right question. Is higher education doing what it should be doing - improving the life chances of its students, offering opportunities hitherto denied to all but a few, and giving us a better chance to solve the problems of both today and tomorrow? Undoubtedly.
THE DUMB YEARS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF FALLING STANDARDS
In an early dumbing-down scandal, Thames Valley University (TVU) was accused of lowering standards to ensure that students passed courses.
After industrial action left students ill prepared for re-sits, a pro vice-chancellor was revealed to have told assessment boards to pass students who scored more than 30 per cent, instead of the usual 40 per cent mark.
This instruction, later revoked, prompted allegations of dumbing down and an inquiry by the Quality Assurance Agency, which cleared TVU of the original charge but raised "serious cause for concern about staff motivation and thus about academic standards".
Ron Cooke, then vice-chancellor of the University of York, sparked controversy when the-then Times Higher Education Supplement revealed a memo that he had sent to all external examiners, pointing out that the proportion of firsts awarded in economics had fallen in comparison with rivals.
He asked whether "the distribution of results accurately reflects the achievements of students", reigniting the debate about grade inflation.
De Montfort University was accused of abandoning academic standards after a decision to boost marks on a pharmacy degree by up to 14 per cent following high failure rates.
The scandal was compounded when internal documents revealed that staff had argued that the move was "academically indefensible" and that external examiners had described it as "deplorable" before it was pushed through.
The grade inflation drove the pass mark in one module down as low as 26 per cent. Memos also revealed that staff had been told that their jobs would be at risk if the upgrades were not agreed.
Paul Buckland, a professor of archaeology with 25 years' teaching experience, resigned from his post at Bournemouth University after managers overruled his decision to fail 14 BSc students.
His judgment that the students, whom he described as "knuckle-draggingly thick", had not met basic standards was confirmed by a second marker and endorsed by the exam board.
However, Buckland subsequently learnt that the results had been re-marked and changed without consultation with him, and ten of the 14 had been given a pass.
Buckland subsequently won a claim for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal, which found that "his views and his position as a senior academic were disregarded in a manner that he was entitled to regard as insulting".