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Declining university academic standards need examination

4 May 2015 2 Comments

Today’s educators could learn a lot from Britain’s reformist Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone.

Four times PM, Gladstone had some fine ideas. In 1870 he introduced compulsory written examinations for recruitment to the British civil service. This was to avoid and overcome corruption and to ensure that candidates had the appropriate skills.

He succeeded admirably, and with drastically lowering academic and entry standards in our universities we might want to think about adopting similar measures. But these days, written exams seem very much out of fashion.

In 1970, Australian universities began replacing examinations with “continuous assessment”, which involved submitting multiple essays. This was sometimes accompanied by “oral work” , presented by students as a group.

Sitting in an examination room with no books, no notes, nothing but pen and paper, it is hard to cheat. But when students are assessed on the basis of essays written at home or in a library there are few safeguards. Students can copy, and buy, material from anywhere , as they are increasingly doing.

In the current issue of the online journal ‘Driftless Review’, highly respected Sydney-based scholar Michael Wilding compares his early university experiences with the current sorry state of academia: “When I was an undergraduate, continuous assessment had not been introduced. I wrote my weekly essay and read it to my tutor, and that was it. It was never formally marked.” Because there were no examinations until the end of the year, students could allocate their time as they wished. As he confides, this was a marvellous opportunity for a young would-be writer: “If you wanted to take a term off to edit the student paper or produce a play or write a novel, you could. I did. Then you worked hard to catch up.” This meant students had an opportunity to think more creatively, without the constraints of continuous, time-gobbling assessments.

When Wilding arrived at Sydney University as a lecturer in 1963 there were examinations at the end of each year, but through the 1960s and 1970s it could still boast of what he terms, “a civilised program of three 10-week terms and three vacations a year, which allowed some space for students to develop their creative gifts”.

But the introduction of continuous assessment for every course turned universities into an industrial conveyer belt, with no time available for students to write poetry and stories, to direct or act in plays or for sustained student journalism. And with the reduction of scholarships and re-introduction of fees, students had to take jobs to support themselves. As Wilding explains: “They no longer had the spare time that university used to give them, in which they could write or act or read.”

The current sad state of contemporary universities could largely be solved by jettisoning continuous assessment and returning to compulsory end-of-year (or even end-of-semester) written exams, held in a public place and vetted by an independent body. This would be for the betterment of students, staff and the wider society.

Rather than allowing failure in exams to be offset by high (and often utterly underserved) assignment marks, universities should promptly introduce a compulsory requirement to pass end-of-year written exams as a pre-requisite for passing each course. This would directly address plagiarism and the purchase of essays online.

At the same time as the reintroduction of compulsory exams, there should also be vastly improved and independently vetted university entry standards, which would ensure that, before starting university, minimum standards in numeracy and literacy have been achieved. This would apply to all students seeking admission to Australian universities, not just from students who come from overseas.

When Wilding and I began university teaching , he at Sydney University, myself at University of NSW and then at Griffith University , there were three terms and three vacations, the latter used to pursue research. For permanent tenured staff, sabbatical leave of six months every three years, or a year every six years, allowed talented academics to concentrate on research.

But now academics have to apply for research council funding and be peer reviewed on every project, submitting a detailed description of the project before a scholar has even begun it.

As Wilding observes, anything challenging or original is unlikely to be approved. Moreover the current practice is that academics use grants to pay for someone else to do their teaching. But surely the benefits of research should feed into improved or better teaching?

These days, part-time tutors, paid by the hour, with no benefits and no vacation pay, increasingly do university teaching. In some subjects, students may never encounter a tenured member of staff in their entire degree program. As Wilding puts it: “What the university now wants is people bringing in large research grants. Publication is no longer seen as important.”

The department in which Wilding worked still issues a regular bulletin. But it no longer lists staff members’ publications, only grants received. In the ‘Driftless Review’, Wilding wryly remarks that taking early retirement is the one thing in his academic and scholarly life about which he has no regrets.

One does not need to be an Einstein to understand that a consequence of turning higher education into an industry has been the necessity to accept squads of high-fee-paying students with lower levels of skills. These include those coming from China and elsewhere overseas. Another consequence has been the need to assist such students to complete their degrees by lowering academic standards.

The reintroduction of end-of-year written exams vetted by an independent authority would be an extremely useful reform. However, it does not address the problem of universities needing to be properly funded.

A helpful beginning would be to radically reduce the number of our universities, which currently are too many by half. At the very least, this would save millions of dollars each year in unnecessarily duplicated administrative and other costs.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books.

The Canberra Times, Times2 p 1. May 4, 2015

2 Comments »

  • Dr Peter Smith said:

    Too many universities

    Ross Fitzgerald (“Universities need examination”, Times2, May 4, p1) rightly concludes that the sector itself needs to change. Fewer more efficient publicly funded universities need to replace the current mishmash. Tiny fiefdoms cannot be expected to provide the efficiency and punching power needed to meet the 21st-century demands of the domestic and global markets for high-quality university education and research.

    Dr Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW

    Letter to the editor, The Canberra Times, May 6 2015

  • Richard Mills said:

    Academic standards

    Ross Fitzgerald (“Declining university academic standards need examination”, Times2, May 4, p1) is, as usual, right on the money in pointing to the problems associated with declining academic standards.

    Any reluctance to fail inadequate work to prevent the loss of revenue is a blight on the whole system. It is not only that some students are allowed to enter university without the ability to pass unless the standards of marking are lowered, but also that they are allowed to continue in later years.

    In my view, the standards should be increasingly tough in second and third years, the object being to produce a really skilful elite rather than a multitude of mediocrities. And these best and brightest should not have to pay for their tuition, but should be allowed to have the time to develop other life and personal skills.

    Richard Mills, Leura, NSW

    Letter to the Editor, The Canberra Times, May 6, 2015.

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