Phil’s University Challenge

I am back at the University treadmill, only to find crisis brewing. Pardon gharssly mixed metaphors. Nobody should cook things on a treadmill.  There are probably Health and Safety Regulations which prevent this.

Anyhoo. I was awoken by Phil Willis on my radio, explaining how University degree classifications are a farce. There are more firsts every year, and nobody can prove that a 2:1 from University X is the same as University Y, or that it means the same in Physics as it is does in Sports Science. Yes folks, this is the same Phil Willis, chair of the IUSS Select Committee, that we love so much for roasting STFC.

This a very interesting but scary debate. Where it seems to be heading is that Universities cannot be allowed to regulate themselves and set their own exams. How can the Government pay us £15bn per year and not want to take charge ?   Its hard to deny the central point, that degree standards are not uniform in space or time. But this situation has been created by Government policy, not by the Universities, over many years.

(1) Distinction between Universities and Polys removed. Their degrees must therefore be the same.

(2) Percentage of population going through University must go up, from 5-10% to 30-50%. We will pretend that all these people are equally capable of high level achievement, so all degrees awarded must be the same value. Oh and standards must be maintained.

(3) Students must pay for their education. Therefore they are customers. Therefore they must get what they belive they have paid for. A piece of paper with an unambiguous meaning.

I believe, as the Government has done for many years, that it is a good thing for a large fraction of the population to undergo tertiary education. I also agree that such a mass education system should be of uniform and reliable quality and calibration. But we still need something like the old University system to produce the 5% of specialists as well.

Going back to step (1), I find myself suprised at the way history has unfolded. When the “binary dividing line” was removed between Polys and Unis, many folks secretly assumed that the real point was to allow it to float upwards…

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30 Responses to Phil’s University Challenge

  1. “whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards”

    Who cares? Someone with ANY degree from Cambridge or
    Oxford will have better chances ANYWHERE than someone
    with an excellent degree from a less reputable
    university. Not that this is correct, but it is the
    way the world works, so discussion as to what the
    degrees mean is rather moot.

    The only way to ensure the same standards everywhere
    is to have all students of a particular field of
    study take the same, centralised exams and also have
    all degrees externally judged.

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    Doesn’t physics stands to gain enormously from any critical across-the-board examination of the academic rigour, quality and value of different degree programmes?

  3. Ken McKenzie says:

    Setting aside the fact that we’ve been having *exactly* the same argument CONTINUOUSLY since *at least* the 19th century (seriously), this

    “But we still need something like the old University system to produce the 5% of specialists as well.”

    What’s wrong with a PhD, then? Only held by 2% of the working population in the UK, and it’s specialist.

  4. andyxl says:

    Phillip : indeed. In the US, nobody even pretends that a degree from Harvard is the same as a degree from Pisspot College Georgia.

    Mike : I would hope so, but we may get swallowed up in unpleasant reforms anyway.

    Ken : We don’t want to wait 7-8 years for someone to get a PhD, and they need a high-quality taught-course first. But for Physics at least, the BSc / MSci split is close to what we need. Maybe even a little more hierarchy still, with multiple exit points. Diploma after one year, general degree after two, BSc after three, MSci after four. Every one gets a prize. Diplomas and general degrees could be national exams, and BSc and MSci local ones. Making this up as I go along, but it sounds good.

  5. Russell Smith says:

    “We consider that so long as there is a classification system it is essential that it should categorise all degrees against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions in England”

    Fun to imagine the outcry in that first hypothetical summer after all degrees have been perfectly calibrated against the infallible “Willis Standards”. Picture the headlines when Cambridge ends up giving firsts to 99% of the the cohort, while at [insert institution(s) of choice here], half the students get thirds and the rest fail…

  6. Feebull Minedead says:

    I too caught Willis this morning, but my reaction was ‘about time!’.

    His arguments held water and he continues to stand out as the only politician we have that would rise above ‘burger flipper’ at McD’s.

    What is so awful about the idea of a standards body? Polys used to have one and it worked reasonably well. You sound as work shy as your students, andyxl – perhaps you’re a little too accustomed to getting your own way?

  7. andyxl says:

    Dear Feebull – I am confused. Why am I work shy ? Nothing wrong with a bit of good natured mud slinging, but I don’t understand the provocation !

  8. John Peacock says:

    There are two separate points here: variation of degree standards in time and in space (although perhaps Willis has produced some elegant relativistic synthesis, in which these are aspect of the same phenomenon).

    Regarding variations in space, I’ve been an external examiner, and have seen several externals in action here. Everyone understands that our main function is to state “this would get a 2.1 in my institution” etc. And I think this calibration does have a unifying effect across universities. The result is that some universities give more top degrees, which is as it should be. When I graduated, in 1977, about 25% of my Cambridge physics cohort got Firsts, which was way above the national average at the time.

    But things have moved on. Cambridge now awards 40-50% Firsts in a somewhat larger cohort. Edinburgh awards around 20% Firsts, again in a larger cohort. So perhaps twice as many First-class physicists are being produced Nationally compared to a generation ago. Now, it may be that we are digging up smart people who previously didn’t get into the system, but one has to say that this is a suspicious trend. We all know that these students are entering university with a level of preparation way below what used to be the norm. As a result, I lecture material on maths methods to 2nd year undergraduates that in some cases I studied at age 16. With this foundation, can the ability at doing physics of the students we graduate really have increased so much?

    I think this potential grade inflation is the thing to worry about. Willis seems to have fastened on differences between universities at a given time, which I see as less clearly a problem.

    • Robert says:

      John: Do you therefore believe that degrees of the same classification from different institutes are equivalent? This was the question the select committee tried to get representatives from Oxford and Oxford Brooks to answer. Needless to say, they did not get a straight answer.

      Of course, it’s not a simple question. The content of many courses going by the same name will vary between institutes, though physics presumably less so than, say, medieval history.

      That said I agree that the comparison of standards across time is more important, but I don’t believe this can be addressed without looking at the school curriculum first. As you say, it seems that students arrive at university without some prerequisite maths and physics.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Across subjects, I am not sure it is a meaningful question, although I am sure that most physics lecturers believe that a degree in their subject is tougher and more worthwhile than one in golf course management.

        Between universities, I think there is some reasonable grounds for claiming that standards are comparable within physics. I have been the external examiner for undergraduate programmes at three other institutions, and I can honestly state that I found their academic standards were directly comparable to each other and to the two universities in this country where I have taught.

        As for the comparison in time, I agree that there is a serious issue here, and am of the view that we should formally supplement the traditional degree classification with a grade-inflation-proof measure such as the rank of the student within the class (“Fred Bloggs was awarded a 2i 23/87,” for example). That way, any potential employer is provided with information on how each student ranks relative to his/her peers, which is what most of them really want, and has explicit information as to whether a degree classification is the result of grade inflation (“Fred Bloggs was awarded a 2i 65/72″).

  9. Chicago says:

    Academia does need scruting and a shake up. Change is required and even if it is not perfect it should be done to improve the system.

  10. Chicago says:

    I think I meant scrutinizing. Sorry.

  11. Feebull Minedead says:

    I don’t know about you, but I prefer a spot of scruting.

    Why *are* you work shy, andyxl?

  12. andyxl says:

    When *did* you stop beating your wife, Mike ?

  13. andyxl says:

    Sorry, meant Feebull not Mike. Mike must still be beating his wife as far as I know.

  14. John Peacock says:

    Robert: you ask if I really “believe that degrees of the same classification from different institutions are equivalent.” My honest answer is that universities do try to ensure that this is so; and if they fail, it isn’t by a huge amount. I have backed this judgement over many years when recruiting postgraduates here, and would generally prefer to take someone with a First from pretty well any university in preference to (say) a 2.1 from Cambridge. I haven’t seen any major differences in quality or performance of the people we take as a function of where they studied.

    But the degrees can’t be 100% equivalent. People from Oxbridge experience the admirable tutorial system, where they have to learn to defend their reasoning at length in front of an expert. Employers may value that experience, independent of whether it improved their ability to solve physics problems.

  15. I agree with your opinion on the government’s influence towards the tertiary education, However the specialists need being available from the Uni’s at a more frequent rate.

  16. Dave Carter says:

    Astronomer IYA, what do you mean by a more frequent rate, and to whom and for what? I am not sure whether you mean that we should be producing more graduates with science degrees, with which I think we would all agree, or, given your moniker, that you would like people to be available for public education events, in which case you have only to ask. My own department, and it is far from alone, puts considerable effort into public education and involvement with schools, with the primary purpose of attracting the best students into science, and astronomy in particular.

  17. [...] been a great deal of discussion over on the e-astronomer about this issue and much of what I would say has already been said over there so I won’t say [...]

  18. [...] been a great deal of discussion over on the e-astronomer about this issue and much of what I would say has already been said over there so I won’t say [...]

  19. Mrs Trellis says:

    Dear Mr XL,

    That Willis fellow may be a bit controversial, but who can forget his 8 for 43 against Australia at Headlingley in 1981?

    Yours sincerely,

    Mrs Trellis

  20. andyxl says:

    Errr … I can ?

  21. Adrian Burd says:

    Andy,

    >> indeed. In the US, nobody even pretends that a degree from Harvard
    >> is the same as a degree from Pisspot College Georgia.

    Well, our delusional and inept university president (“Bless his soul”) believes that the University of Georgia ranks alongside MIT, Caltech, the University of Chicago and Stanford – these were his choices for the top 5 universities in the US. Mind you, the whole world has witnessed the product of a Yale education, so I guess we know it can’t be in the top 5.

    Adrian

  22. Alan Heavens says:

    Some random thoughts:

    Any system where the fraction of first awarded is recorded and taken (implicitly or explicitly) to be some measure of success of the institution is evidently a recipe for grade inflation.

    I would not be surprised if University degree classifications across broadly comparable Universities are similar, but we tend to appoint our external examiners from such Universities. Does anyone have any evidence that extends across a wider spectrum?

    I am trying to locate Mrs Trellis geographically. A quick Bayesian analysis of the evidence throws up a large posterior in South Wales.

  23. andyxl says:

    Ooh Alan, you are awful.

    Something I should have put in the post; you can browse the actual report here or download the PDF version from here

  24. Nick Cross says:

    Alan, that is a very rude statement about Mrs Trellis’ backside. You should be more of a gentleman.

  25. Cartier says:

    Some random thoughts:

    Any system where the fraction of first awarded is recorded and taken (implicitly or explicitly) to be some measure of success of the institution is evidently a recipe for grade inflation.

    I would not be surprised if University degree classifications across broadly comparable Universities are similar, but we tend to appoint our external examiners from such Universities. Does anyone have any evidence that extends across a wider spectrum?

    I am trying to locate Mrs Trellis geographically. A quick Bayesian analysis of the evidence throws up a large posterior in South Wales.; Some random thoughts:

    Any system where the fraction of first awarded is recorded and taken (implicitly or explicitly) to be some measure of success of the institution is evidently a recipe for grade inflation.

    I would not be surprised if University degree classifications across broadly comparable Universities are similar, but we tend to appoint our external examiners from such Universities. Does anyone have any evidence that extends across a wider spectrum?

    I am trying to locate Mrs Trellis geographically. A quick Bayesian analysis of the evidence throws up a large posterior in South Wales.;;

    • andyxl says:

      The above is spam of course, but I thought I would re-instate it (a) because youse all might want a luxury watch after all, and (b) its an interesting new kind of spam that scrapes cuts and pastes real comments from the target blog. I am afraid however it fails the Turing Test, showing more interest in Mrs Trellis’ posterior than a normal human would find it healthy to admit to.

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