Archive for Phil Willis

A Degree of Value

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on August 7, 2009 by telescoper

Many column-inches have been devoted in the newspapers this week to the issue of University education, after provocative remarks by Phil Willis to the effect that the uncertainty over the “value” of degrees meant the system was descending into farce. Willis is the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, which has just produced a highly critical report about the (lack of) regulation of teaching standards in UK Universities.

The Times Higher responded yesterday with an editorial accusing Universities of complacency over the issue of standards, and also ran a piece in which the Chief of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) tried to answer some of the criticisms of his outfit contained in the report.

There’s 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 it all  here as well. However, there are a few points that I’d like to note.

First, most of the press coverage of this story has focussed on the fact that Universities are now awarding more first-class degrees than they used to.  Actually, the number has almost doubled within a decade. Degrees must be getting easier in order for this to the case, the argument goes. The government strenuously denies charges of dumbing down when A-level results get better every year but has a go at Universities when the same thing happens. So there’s a charge of hypocrisy for a start. However, I think the real reason for grade creep at both A-level and degree stages is that the current education system places a ridiculously high emphasis on compartmentalised learning and assessment methods that allow the students to succeed by cramming and question-spotting without any real knowledge. This has happened at Maths and Physics A-level with a particularly negative effect, and is beginning to happen in Universities too through the enforced modularisation of the curriculum that happened in the 1990s. The way to maintain and improve standards, at least in science education, is to reduce the amount of examination and make the examinations less predictable. The answer is not to entangle Universities in the clutches of a beefed up QAA.

I don’t know if the “standard” of a degree in Physics is lower now than it was ten years ago, nor even what it means to say that is the case. I certainly do think, however, that some of the papers I’m involved with now as a setter or a marker are harder in some ways than the ones I sat when I was a student about 25 years ago. I’m also conscious that I didn’t have to work to support myself most of the time when I was studying. What has changed a lot – and I hope the current generation of students believe this, because I really believe it’s true – is that Universities now put a huge amount of extra effort into teaching than they did when I was a student.

I want to make it clear that I do certainly do not think that present-day students are not as clever or as industrious as previous generations and are  just playing the system. One piece of evidence refutes that view very easily. In the questionnaires we give to students, they very often give the strongest signals of appreciation to courses they consider hard than to those they consider easy. I don’t think students don’t like dumbing down any more than staff do. They just want things to be done fairly.

I should add that I also think, within Physics, that academic standards are roughly comparable at the present time from University to University in the UK. I mean, in Physics at any rate, I honestly do believe that a First from Cardiff is worth the same as a First from Cambridge. I’ve been an external (or internal) examiner at several institutes over the last decade (including Cambridge) and, although their curricula vary a bit, I’m convinced that the academics try very hard to maintain the level of difficulty while at the same time being fair to the students by providing much more help than they used to. Many physicists, however, accept that forcing their syllabus into little modular boxes has made this circle very difficult to square.

I can’t speak for other subjects, of course. Is a first class degree in Media Studies from Nottingham Trent University worth as much (or indeed as little) as one from the University of Glamorgan? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows?

However, it’s not really the issue of grades in itself that worried me most. Contained in the report is a scary section that claims that the link between “teaching quality” and research is “weak at best”. If, it says, it is essential for undergraduate teaching to be delivered within a strong research environment then research funding should be spread around. If not, then it should be concentrated.

The argument contained in the report is a masterpiece of non sequitur. Where is the evidence that research benefits from being carried out in a smaller number of departments? And if you deny a connection between teaching and research, whyshould the higher education funding agencies be involved in funding research anyway? And the evidence is always going to be “weak” when you talk about such ill-defined concepts. What does “teaching quality” mean? How do you measure it? The QAA doesn’t know and neither do I.

 The problem underpinning this issue is that, in 1992, the (Conservative) government allowed the polytechnics to become universities. The various research assessment exercises were introduced because, prior to 1992, all Universities received research funding in proportion to their undergraduate numbers. It was assumed, you see, that a University did teaching and research. However, the new Universities (or old Polytechnics) didn’t always have research activities in the areas they were teaching, and there wasn’t enough money to fund all 120+ new Universities on the pre-1992 basis. Thus the idea was conceived to concentrate this element of research funding (called QR) in those departments that were actually doing research. That’s not unreasonable, but as bureaucracies always do, the system of research assessment has become self-serving. Sufficient  concentration was actually achieved a decade ago, but we still have to endure pointless reshuffling exercises every few years.

The big changes of 1992  left Physics in a special position. The number of Physics (or Physics & Astronomy) departments in the UK entered into the last Research Assessment Exercise was only 42. About two-thirds of UK universities do not have research activity in this area. Very few Polytechnics either taught Physics to undergraduates or did research in Physics and very few started such programmes when they became Universities.  Why? Because there is absolutely no way you can teach a modern Physics degree outside a research department. It would be impossible to keep up to date, impossible to provide appropriate projects, and impossible to retain quality  staff to do the teaching because they would clearly want to be doing physics as well as teaching it. In Physics the link between teaching and research is not “weak”. The pre-1992 situation demonstrates how crucial it really is.

I can’t speak for other subjects, but I suspect much of this applies across all disciplines. That’s why I think a University in which students are taught by people who are not doing research in the field they are teaching just shouldn’t be called a University. By definition.

The Polytechnics had much to offer this country, but their contribution was largely lost when they became second-rate Universities. But of course you’ll never find a politician who will admit that it was a mistake.