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.