A degree in every Cornflakes packet

I’ve been puzzled by the failure of any bloggers or mainstream op-ed pundits even to mention last week’s Nine Network Sunday program which revealed apparent serious erosion of fundamental academic standards at University of Newcastle. It appears that widespread plagiarism by full fee-paying overseas students was covered up, with the (rightly) initially failed student essays secretly re-marked and all 15 students given Pass or better grades for submitting essays that weren’t their own work. Moreover, it also appears that a supposedly “independent” review was carefully set up in a manner that ensured the situation was obfuscated. The person conducting the review was told not to enquire into the question of whether plagiarism had even taken place!

According to Sunday, this isn’t an isolated event, and they are continuing to investigate allegations of a generally similar nature at other universities. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Some readers may recall the case of Ted Steele, a Wollongong University academic who was sacked as a result of making public statements alleging similar (though less specific) erosion of academic standards. John Ray blogged on the Steele case here, summarising that “Steele had said that “soft-marking” for fee-paying Asian students was common.”. Steele’s dismissal was invalidated by the Federal Court, but he was re-instated only grudgingly.

There’s little doubt that all these problems have a common root cause: the increasing commercialisation of tertiary education. Students are now customers, and the customer is always right.

The market-based system for higher education is essentially an adaptation of the American approach to higher education, and readers may not be surprised to learn that rather similar problems are equallt widespread in that country. No lesser institution than Harvard University was recently forced reluctantly to reform its grading system after it was revealed that it awarded Honours degrees to no less than 91% of the total number of graduating students in 2001.

However, the problem is far more widespread than that. As this article in USA Today reveals:

At Harvard University, a recent study found that nearly half of all grades awarded were A or A-minus.

A tenured professor is suing Temple University, saying he was fired because he wouldn’t make his courses easier or give students higher grades.

And now, a new report prepared by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences says it’s time to put an end to grade inflation.

Concerns about grade inflation, defined as an upward shift in the grade-point average without a corresponding increase in student achievement, are not new. The report cites evidence from national studies beginning as early as 1960. And while it is a national phenomenon, authors Henry Rosovsky, a former Harvard dean, and Matthew Hartley, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, say the phenomenon is “especially noticeable” in the Ivy League.

They blame the rise of grade inflation in higher education on a complex web of factors, including:

  • An administrative response to campus turmoil in the 1960s, and a trend, begun in the 1980s, in which universities operate like businesses for student clients.
  • The advent of student evaluations of professors and the increasing role of part-time instructors.
  • Watered-down course content, along with changes in curricular and grading policies.

All these phenomena are equally evident in Australian universities. Unlike quite a few bloggers, I’m not strongly opposed to the market-based Nelson reforms for higher education. The view of NTU Law School, which I share, is that it will provide us with some opportunities to reverse the “death of a thousand cuts” we’ve been suffering for the last 7 or 8 years. In a political atmosphere where the public won’t tolerate any party raising taxes, it’s probably the best we’re going to do. Moreover, in some respects competitive pressures can actually be beneficial. However, a market-based approach by definition introduces a potential conflict of interest into the academic role. One’s future depends in a very immediate sense on maintaining enrolments, because that’s what generates income. Enrolments are most effectively maintained by meeting student demands and expectations that they will be awarded a degree (whether their performance merits it or not). However, as this article observes:

Teachers who push most students above a C grade only defeat the purpose of grades to motivate students to do better or to help parents and employers to distinguish abilities. Once graduates enter the job market, they discover they can’t bank on those undeserved grades.

This is a problem that isn’t going to be solved solely by the “invisible hand” of the market. The immediate consumers (students) aren’t going to demand that they be assessed more rigorously, or at least most of them aren’t. And the ultimate consumers (i.e. employers) simply don’t have enough information to know precisely what’s occurring. The most that happens is that they gain a generalised impression that new graduate employees are increasingly not meeting their performance expectations, and some begin imposing additional qualifications and experience as job pre-requisites.

Grade inflation and related phenomena are examples of market failure where regulatory intervention is clearly needed. At the very least we need much stronger external prudential oversight of marking standards, and much more effective “whistleblower” legislation and machinery to protect academics who reveal the sort of behaviour that seems to have taken place at University of Newcastle.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken,

I’d be interested in how you can have “much stronger external prudential oversight of marking standards” in humanities/social science subjects, where it is basically a judgement call. On one level, the US grade inflation – while tacitly accepting that no customers can fail – is a logical working out of the commercial imperatives. At another level, the external attempts to stamp down on grade inflation are turning into formulae that are invoking perverse responses to the disbenefit of individual students and teaching per se, i.e. if I have, say, a student who works hard, connects with the subject, grows in the course and gets a higher grade than his/her established grade point average, questions are raised. If this occurs on a substantial or whole class basis, all hell can break lose. This is absolutely anathema to everything learning really means, and thus external monitoring is pissing off good staff much more than the inflation ills opened the way for poor staff, knocking off the incentive to try to teach entirely. We may as well negotiate a rank for ’em on the basis of their entry results at the start, let em do what they want for a few years, and give them the inital rank at the end. In sum, there’s no easy answer to this, beyond re-basing the commercial imperatives that are now driving the diseases … and so-called “regulatory intervention” sounds absurd, displacing judgements that can only really made at the coal face to systems removed enough so as not to have the basis upon which they are able to make them.

Re: “In a political atmosphere where the public won’t tolerate any party raising taxes” … well, this doesn’t hold up in the case of education-hypothecated taxes, which opinion surveys have repeatedly shown have strong public suppport.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

The reason nobody has talked about it is that nobody cares Ken.

A degree is just a piece of paper that proves you can sit in one place for at least 15 hours a week for more than a year at a time. It’s that requirement that employers are looking for.

Even supposedly employment-friendly courses like Commerce and Computer Science are essentially useless at producing graduates qualified to do any particular job.

None of my graduate friends have had their grades checked by employers. Indeed, they rarely even check if you actually have the degree you claim, as long as it’s written on the resume.

It seems to me that the market is producing exactly what the employers want – meaningless pieces of paper.

The sole reason to go to uni for 90% of people my age is that you can’t get any sort of office job without a degree – no matter how useless. It’s a taxpayer-funded cult.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Chris,

I hope you’re right about education pypothecated taxes (specific purpose levies). However, the survey may depend how the question is asked. I’d be very interested in knowing whether the ALP is assiduously declining to adopt such policies (a) because they’re cowardly and unimaginative; or (b) because carefully conducted research suggests that there IS a serious political cost.

As for the point about the feasibility of external assessment moderation, I simply don’t accept that it’s impossible. Saying that marking is a “judgment call” simply begs the question. There are specific things you’re looking for in exams and assignments, in humanities areas (of which law is one) as much as in the “hard’ sciences. All universities have some system to ensure common marking standards where there are multiple markers (as there are in any subject with high enrolments). There is no reason why “random audit”-style external moderators couldn’t check a sample of essays and exams against these set marking criteria to ensure that standards are being maintained, nor any reasons that they couldn’t check to see that those criteria are appropriate and similar to similar courses at other universities.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

The US system, as it admirable it is in some ways, is a bit of a joke in others.

Stanford is a university with very high academic standards. Students can fail, but Fs do not appear on their transcript. It’s as if they never did the subject. At the end of each semester, students who think they might be in line for less than an A beg their professors to fail them rather than stamp their academic record indelibly with a B or worse.

The University of Newcastle stuff, by the way, has been well known for years. I’ve heard even worse stories than were told on Sunday.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken,

There is ample reputable evidence of support for hypothecated education taxes (references can be supplied). I guess that the ALP is just deeply spooked, combined with (mad but) residual loyalty to the fact that hypothecated taxes are anathema to Treasury … to see how spooked they are, look at the death penalty issue, a matter of principle for a workers party if there ever was one. Can’t wait to see how all this plays back on the Hicks case … neither, I suspect, can Jack Howard, who I imagine is crafting some neat wedges as we speak.

Re external monitoring … quite right, peer review is a … and the only … way to go … but that’s not what’s being introduced. The problem is that monitoring is being driven by uni admin executives, and they are just getting into the old bind. To the extent that monitoring becomes effective, it approximates more extensive peer reviews and shadow teaching … to the extent that it approximates shadow teaching it becomes prohibitively expensive … to the extent that it therefore necessarily becomes partial, it throws up continuing problems … to the extent that it throws up continuing problems, it becomes more expensive … to the extent that it becomes more expensive, it becomes prohibitive … to the extent that it becomes prohibitive, it becomes formulaic …. etc, etc. In the end, you have a power and control issue here … between the professional staff and the administrative staff .. and there is not going to be a near satisfactory solution from a teaching/learning perspective while the admin drives the thing … which gets back to the commercial base.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

I recall David Clarke from UNSW making similar statements moons ago.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Chris,

Your points are all good ones, and I share your horror at anything that further expands the predominance of the bean-counters. However, what I’m talking about is external moderation by an academically-run extra-institutional body. Its brief would be to maintain academic standards, not to save money or achieve administrative efficiencies.

It wouldn’t be easy to achive, because academics tend to become captives of the bean-counters soon after they take up academic administrative posts. However, an academically-based external moderation body could actually serve as a counter-balance to the bean-counters, because it could threaten to de-accredit a course which had become too compromised by “administrative efficiencies”.

NTU Law School periodically gets pressured to lower our entry TER score to the mediocre (or worse) level that applies in most other faculties. We’re able to resist the pressure mostly because we’re able to demonstrate that the legal profession would decline to accept the NTU law degree as a sufficient basis for admission as a practitioner if we did so. An external academic standards-moderation body could fulfill a similar role for disciplines lacking such an immediate professional linkage.

Thomas
Thomas
2022 years ago

So what can we do? Drive to Newcastle and demonstrate?
Starting point – Australians worship the mediocre.

Should we be surprised that a bunch of academics in a Uni in a regional town do some cooking of the results?
It is highly regretable that there is soft marking, but I would bet that it is so endemic in some places that we need to send in the SS ( or something similarly drastic ). Meantime, I shake my head and sigh.
With apologies to Ken P who seems an honest person and a decent academic
Thomas

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
2022 years ago

Unlike Yobbo, I care about the cheating and soft marking. Everybody who I graduated with put in a lot of hard work to get their degrees, and it makes a mockery of them, if others can cheat and then be excused.

I’ve always thought that “soft plagerisation” is more common in the hard sciences, as people tend to work in teams, so defining where one persons work stops and another’s starts is difficult. Additionally, many students build on the work done by past students, which can lead to plagerisation.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I dunno Ken. I would like to get back to this topic at some stage with some more substantive points, but for now admit to this strange feeling of personal (as distinct from social and political) ambivalence about the oncoming commercial regime. Having got my degrees courtesy of the Great Gough and scholarships, I have this feeling that they are now all going to go up in (exchange) value as the market raises the price, while at the same time also knowing that they are all going down in their real (use) value as the quality of learning deteriorates in inverse relation. Talk about the luck of a birth date.

wmb
wmb
2022 years ago

I dream that somewhere in a dusty cupboard, a single sample of my examination answers remains waiting for the light of day, or are they all religiously, and fortuitously, committed to the flames?

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

Dave Ricardo is partially right about this Uni of Newcastle story being old news, although not quite “for years”

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Oh, I dunno about that Paul. I’ve taught a lot of international students, and if I catch any of them doing serious plagiarism, it’s like end of story, fail, no questions, black and white … tell your story to the judge buddy … not my problem, don’t take all my tissues, bye, close the door behind you. I love that clear cut stuff.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Paul,

Yes, Chris’s experience coincides with mine. When I read you comment (and earlier post), I began to think that maybe we lived a sheltered existence here in the Territory. At least Chris’s response has reassured me to an extent. My post tentatively accepted that condoning cheating/plagiarism seemed to be occurring at more than one university, but I don’t believe it’s anything like the norm (which is what you seem to be suggesting). In my experience, any student caught cheating instantly fails that subject (i.e. gets zero marks). Plagiarism at the very least results in zero marks for that assessment component and, if flagrant, will result in failing the entire subject. I haven’t struck a situation of a student caught plagiarisng for a second time, but I’m sure they’d be up for course exclusion were that to occur. I believe (and hope) that these are the conditions generally applicable at all Australian universities.

As for unemployed/unethical academics “helping” students with assignments, I’m sure it happens. And not only unemployed academics. One of our staff members was in the habit of setting “take home” exams, because they’re quite a good compromise between a supervised 2 hour exam and an assignment, in that the time-frame and pressure equates well to a typical real-life situation in private practice. However, last year it became apparent that several students had had someone else (with considerable legal experience) do the take home exam for them. It was strongly rumoured that these students had paid admitted legal practitioners to write their take home answers for them.

As you suggested Paul, it’s simply up to academics to design assessment methods that are reasonably cheat-proof. Sadly, that rules out take-home exams, and also dictates that you must set different essay topics every time a subject is taught. I don’t think the fact that some academics are too lazy or overworked to do so reflects badly on the system (unlike condoning of plagiarism or grade inflation).

Lastly, I think grade inflation IS a problem in Australia. In fact I know it is. Moreover, as with the US, it’s a bigger problem at sandstone universities. I know from experience that one sandstone law school (which had better remain nameless) has over the last few years been almost as generous with awarding Honours degrees as Harvard. Around 80% of final year students are awarded Honours, which is ridiculous. In case anyone suggests that it’s just because they have an excellent standard of student, it isn’t (although obviously their TER score on entry is much higher than NTU’s). We’ve had several visiting academics from this particular law school teach NTU units over the last several years. In almost every case the marks they awarded our students were ridiculously generous, and we’ve had to scale them all down to a significant extent. We even had one student, of NESB origin and dubious literacy who always struggles even to pass subjects, being awarded a Distinction. Sometimes that might occur genuinely, because a plodding student simply develops a love for a particular subject, works really hard for a change, and produces an uncharacteristically excellent result. However, on moderating the student’s exam answers, we discovered (not really surprisingly) that they were at her usual standard.

Stewart Kelly
Stewart Kelly
2022 years ago

I partially agree with Yobbo. Uni’s are a degree factory. The old uni dunny roll holder joke: “Pull here for degree, wipe to validate” rings true.

Part of the problem is that uni’s are expected to cater for a wide range of disciplines, some of which are a joke. I have a friend with a degree in Recreation Studies. She runs a local recreation centre. For her major third year assignment she had to run a an ecologically sound bike trip around south-west WA. Is this really degree level material?

Bring back CAE’s or something similar. Expand TAFE. Make one and two year qualifications more common. Leave uni for the truly hard courses that merit three years of hard study.

Oh yeah, and more public funding please.

Craig
Craig
2022 years ago

Take home exams?

Bike tour assignments?

I’m going to the wrong uni.

Tim Lambert
2022 years ago

Paul, I just failed about a dozen students for plagiarism. I don’t know how many were international students, I’d guess about half. There has never been any pressure on me to go soft on such students, except for the them crying or begging or arguing or offering bribes.

Anthony
Anthony
2022 years ago

I’ve found plenty of students plagiarising. They’ve all been failed, usually after having to explain themselves in scary meetings which made them cry. Boo hoo.
A few years ago our faculty was given strict guidelines for how to mark, apparently under fear of grade inflation. Very few students are to get H1s (80% or above). This was not popular with American students, for whom anything less that 90% seems to be tantamount to a fail.
OTOH I went to an American summer school a few years back, and never got so may 98 and 99%s in my life. Feels good if you’re not used to em.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Yes Anthony, that’s the US university marking system that I know and … well, think is just a big self-serving joke really. Bring it on Nelson baby …

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

This is all rather uninspiring to a fellow contemplating a degree I must say…

Ian Firns
2022 years ago

The seriously important issue with the Newcastle story is not the conduct of the students, but the conduct of the staff. Those who were caught cheating received the appropriate mark – zero – and that, so far as I was concerned, disposed of those assessment items. The Deputy Director of the School, with the approval of the Director, had administrative staff white out my comments and marks. The papers were then passed to another academic and he marked them (see the transcript of last week’s Sunday programme cover story at http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_1345.asp), awarding grades ranging from pass to high distinction. A supposedly independent enquiry found that there was nothing improper about this! That was not a result I was prepared to accept – and I said so!

Incidentally, I am a part-time contract lecturer, and have presented courses for four universities in recent times. The improper conduct in this case was by full-time tenured staff. They have been supported by senior management. I resent the suggestion that an increase in part-time or casual staff results in a lowering of quality. We contractors are independent of the system that results in so many people, including many of those making comments here, being prepared to deplore the reduction in standards, and so few being prepared to take a strong (and if necessary public) stance on the matter.

Guess what? The University of Newcastle has not offered me any contracts this year!

Thomas
Thomas
2022 years ago

I agree with Stewart Kelly and yon Yobbo.
The standard of Uni’s has been diluted by past ‘reforms’ ( Dawkins? anyone remember him? ).
Maybe Ken P is correct – degrees have about as much respect as the Weeties packet. Still, I am going to consume USA weeties – anything above 51% is a novelty for this country lawman!]
TMR

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

I’ve been heartened by the fact that a few academics have indicated here that there *is* a line in the sand, standards-wise, which they would cross.

Nonetheless, I think that such a commitment to principle is atypical among our tenured academics (what sessionals do or think hardly matters, because they are subject to a grace and favour

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

Oops, first line should read:

“… standards-wise, which they would NOT cross”.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

Ian Firns comments re his experience with Newcastle Uni shouldn’t be assumed to be atypical of ‘university’ education. A few years back, a Newcastle lecturer was found to have not only been guilty of [plagiarism, but had also passed off a student’s work as her own. Nothing done, nothing changed, because this particular plagiarist is still at it.
The current problem relates to o/s students, which is ironic, because a previous well placed academic’s spouse was permitted to resign a few years back, when it was shown he’d engaged in innovative side deals. He was then given a fresh job, with a new title, but still dealing with o/s students. What a wonderful world academia can be?
Unfortunately, the problem of standards goes beyond o/s students. The dispute at Wollongong Uni was presented in the media as if it were o/s students; but the soft marking involved locals as well. Even as far back as the 70s, a Victorian lecturer wrote a newspaper article re the long term consequences of semi literate students being being “passed”; but everyone held tight, kept quiet, and the issue died.
Newcastle may have problems; but surely Australian educational standards at ALL levels pose even bigger long term worries for us?

Tom
Tom
2022 years ago

“[Stanford] Students can fail, but Fs do not appear on their transcript. It’s as if they never did the subject. At the end of each semester, students who think they might be in line for less than an A beg their professors to fail them rather than stamp their academic record indelibly with a B or worse.”

I thought the situation was that a Stanford student could drop out of a course at any time, even up until the day after the final.

Wuses. Have your degree mark based on four three hour tripos exams at the end of three years, like Cambridge does. That’s *real* stress.

trackback
2022 years ago

I should just mail my degree back

The Sydney Morning Herald reports (emphasis mine):

In late 2002 a casual lecturer employed by the University of Newcastle
to …