Blogs > Cliopatria > Degrees for sale in the UK?

Aug 2, 2004 9:00 am

Degrees for sale in the UK?

An alarming situation reported in The Observer yesterday, as noted by The Little Professor, and now also referred to by Jonathan Dresner (scroll down the page a bit). As the LP says, it's about money; and much of what the article discusses is exacerbated by the gap between what we're allowed to charge home (and EU) students in tuition fees, and what we can get away with charging non-EU overseas students.

Having said that, I think it's possible to overstate - or oversimplify - the issues discussed in the article. For example, the allegations that failing students' marks are being bumped up in order to pass. But the only real evidence given concerns the tiny minority of borderline students. A departmental head has asked lecturers, in cases of marks of 38/9 per cent, with a pass of 40, to"look for the extra 1/2 marks if appropriate and not leave it to the exam board to make this decision". But he's not asking them to pass clearly failing students; we're talking about 1-2 percentage points here (and a fair bit of hedging:"where possible";"if appropriate"). He's startlingly frank about the money issues at stake. But was this the best the reporter could find in his search for scandal?

But there may be other more serious problems that we're not noticing at all. One of our PhD students at Aber, who did his first degree in the US, firmly holds the view that UK universities are much softer on first-year undergrads than our US counterparts precisely because we're so desperate for the extra funding once they're into 2nd and 3rd year. His emphasis, however, is not on marking, but on the workload, or to be precise, lack of it; in other words, we expect much less than American universities do from our freshers - and indeed, very few fail. Are we expecting enough? [I wrote this before reading Jonathan's comments, so maybe things are changing in the US; after all, my informant's experience is now going back a few years.]

Meanwhile, the Swansea departmental closures crisis (although I don't know the ins and outs, even if, like everyone in the University of Wales, I'm hearing a fair amount of rumour) does seem to be about more than expanding the business school to get foreign masters students (the history department is one of those set to benefit too). Which is not to say that it isn't (a) disgraceful and (b) about money. I've had the strong impression that it has a good deal to do with Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) ratings, which directly impact on funding. Swansea wouldn't be the first university to start cuts and even closures of departments with less than stellar RAE scores (see: Durham).

And yes, I think that some of our universities are treating their overseas postgrad students as cash cows; but that can work two ways. For every accusation of easy passes, you can also find horror stories about foreign students being poorly treated, not given sufficient support - especially with language - and going home with nothing to show for their experience but a large hole in their bank accounts. I have no direct knowledge of either situation, incidentally. My own anecdote, for what it's worth: at the University of York, where I did my MA, I was always impressed by the support, academic and social, provided for overseas postgrads, and I never heard any suggestion that they were not marked on exactly the same terms as the home students. If the pass rate was high, it might just be because the university set high admission standards for its postgrad students to begin with. (I might add that I didn't know anyone who failed if they completed their course and the diss - but I did know some who dropped out at an earlier stage. Are those who claim that there are no fails in masters courses taking that into account, I wonder?) So which of these three scenarios is in fact the more representative?

In fact, this article all adds up to pretty dubious reporting: impressions and hearsay - with a mere handful of sources quoted - are used to draw some sweeping, sensational conclusions, when at best what the author has is a case for concern, indicating the need for further investigation. The nearest thing to any hard evidence is that departmental head's email. Is there really a major"scandal"? I'm not suggesting the problem doesn't exist, but I'm not yet convinced that it's"endemic". And I'd really like to see a searching investigation into whether overseas students in the UK are getting good value for money - because I strongly suspect that that's a much more serious - and common - problem than giving them easy rides.

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