Tag Archives: students

Designing certainty into a crisis

Certainty is in short supply amidst the Covid19 pandemic. These last few weeks have seen all of us chilled by a landscape which seems to be receding into unfamiliarity. And yet, in my neighbourhood, the number 11 bus still rumbles past, BT Openreach are digging trenches up the road and I hear small children squealing as they leave the school gates – until tomorrow.

Because yesterday, Gavin Williamson announced that schools and universities will close and GCSE and A Level exams will not take place in May and June this year. Some, like Anthony Seldon, VC of the University of Buckingham, feel this last measure is unnecessary. It certainly poses difficulties for ensuring students get the grades they have earned. You wonder how we got to the point whereby grades for two years’ work depend so heavily on one set of exams. “Michael Gove’s decision to scrap all course work, make GCSEs and A levels exam only and effectively scrap AS Levels clearly wasn’t fully stress tested” tweeted Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor for The Times. (March 19th 2020)

Deborah Cameron (@wordspinster) also via Twitter (March 19th 2020) laid out some of the drawbacks if we were to attempt to instate new and untried arrangements for taking exams remotely, online. Among them are inequalities in access to broadband and laptops, ensuring the integrity of exam conditions, and also the difficulties of deciding what compensations to make. At least cancelling exams provides some degree of certainty so that students don’t have to try and cope with these stressful events as well as a global pandemic. On balance, if I was an A level student, I might prefer being spared taking exams at the moment, while others sort out the logistics of university access on the basis of a combination of mock results, teacher predictions and external moderation.

But the proposal from Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme took me by surprise. Jarvis indicated that students who were holding an offer from a university might simply be accepted by that university now. Universities, he said, should honour the offers they have already made on the basis of prior attainment, predicted grades, references, UCAS personal statements etc. The presenter, Nick Robinson, asked whether these should now be considered unconditional offers, and Jarvis indicated that, yes, universities needed to be flexible in order to remove uncertainty.    https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gbhc (1.55- 1.57)

I wondered how this would work when universities make many more offers to applicants than they have places, in line with a conversion formula. If Jarvis had now implied an entitlement for students to all progress to their first choice university, this was obviously going to cause considerable destabilization for the whole sector.

Rosemary Bennett of The Times seemed similarly startled:

What ? Alastair Jarvis UUK says universities shd honour all offers they have made …..so Cambridge , Oxford and all the rest who makes more offers than places (knowing not all will get top A levels) will be rammed and other struggling to fill courses. (Tweet 19/03/20)

In response, Jarvis tried to walk it back on Twitter:

No, didn’t say universities should do that. An option being considered is looking at how offers could be honoured – won’t be able to be everyone’s 1st choice. Would need system to allocate places. Very tricky, but unprecedented times. I would prefer A-level grades to be awarded

But rather than sidestep the chaos, and land it on individual universities, I propose some ideas which might be workable, just for this year.

Where possible and where their chosen course was offered, students could be allocated to a local HEI. If they wished to transfer elsewhere in 12 months, they might be able to do so based on first year performance. Given the amount of disruption students have faced, and the lack of clarity as to whether teaching can start in the autumn, the new academic year would need to start in January 2021. If repeated, it would give us the opportunity to put in place post-qualification applications (PQA) – something we should have done two decades ago. Students who have been out of school for some months would understandably not wish to mark time through the autumn until January. But the nation may need willing and able hands and minds by September. We could pay a living wage to 18-year olds and offer them work experience in a national citizen’s volunteer force. There will be elderly people to care for; younger children who have missed school to tutor; sports to coach; new community projects to support. And a grateful nation would waive tuition fees for that disrupted, delayed first year of higher education.

Would it work? It might provide an acceptable stopgap solution to the problem of how to allocate university places fairly. No student need miss out on a university place, and in turn, no university need encounter an unexpected drop in numbers. And a generation which has already demonstrated leadership, altruism and care for the environment might feel that has been reciprocated by their elders.

Humanities for the Humane University

It has been chilling the last few weeks to find universities shuttering degree courses in languages as was announced recently at the University of Sunderland and late last year at Nottingham Trent University. History and politics have also been singled out for closure at Sunderland.

A 13th January 2020 statement on Sunderland’s website reads,

‘The governors agreed that all subjects and programmes in the University should be educationally and financially sustainable, align with a particular employment sector, fit within the University’s overall strategy and be of a consistently high-quality’…’ work is underway to further develop areas of importance to the regional and national economy and those that provide clear routes into employment. These include engineering, computer science and business.’

There is a mistaken assumption that history, politics, and languages have no place in a “career-focused curriculum” when many of our political leaders, and indeed many vice chancellors have taken their degrees in these areas. Significantly, among their number is the Sunderland VC, Sir David Bell, BA History and Philosophy (Glasgow).

This academic vandalism is rationalized with two false assumptions: that the only justification for teaching a subject should be its immediate and obvious vocational application; and that the implicated subjects have lower rates of employment than STEM.

When we look at HESA statistics for the occupations of 2012/13 graduates, we find a very low rate of unemployment for graduates of languages – 2.3%. The unemployment figure for History and Philosophy is 2.5%. This compares well with unemployment rates for graduates of computer science 4.6%, agriculture 3.0%, engineering and technology 2.5%, and biological sciences 2.5%.

Nevertheless, the dean of NTU Arts and Humanities repeats the misinformation that ‘nationally graduate outcomes for these students are often not as good as for those on other courses’ available in this tweet. 

Another important question is – does a university serve its students and its civic function without offering languages to students? In a post-Brexit world, it would benefit students well if universities equipped them all with a usable foreign language. Now that possibility is foreclosed for students at Sunderland and perhaps at Nottingham Trent in the future.

Sunderland’s VC adds to the website statement, ‘Our students will be looked after in a way that is consistent with the Student Protection Plan that was agreed by the Office for Students’. This might be the first time that a SPP has been invoked. Readers who are unfamiliar with these documents can catch up here.  They arrived on the HE landscape with the Higher Education Act and Research (2017) and universities are required to have them approved by the regulator, the Office for Students, as a condition of registration.

It is currently difficult to access the student protection plan on Sunderland’s website. The Office for Students mandates that universities make these easily available to students. However, Jim Dickenson has managed to unearth it at this site. It states,

‘The risk that the University will cease to deliver in complete subject areas is very low. The University has undertaken a comprehensive Quality and Sustainability Review of its provision in 2017/18 academic year, examining data to decide whether any subject or programme areas should be discontinued. This Review has completed and no significant change is taking place’.

This is published as the 2019/2020 Student Protection Plan. Students who are currently studying languages, history and politics will feel duped in view of such a recent bill of health from the university which was undertaken prior to the tenure of the VC, Sir David Bell. What kind of confidence can students have in any promise or guarantee from the University of Sunderland? Do managers not consider this loss of trust to be calamitous reputational damage?

It has seemed for a long time that languages are the canary in the mine that augurs a wider assault on the humanities in general. This week, academics as the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) were stunned by an announcement that appeared to signal a massive reduction in the employment of fractional teaching staff together with a rescinding of research leave. These announcements were apparently made without consultation and are to take effect immediately. While particular programs are not singled out here, SOAS is an institution dedicated to arts, languages, history and international studies, with a focus on Africa and Asia. Among its specialisms are languages that are not taught elsewhere in the UK Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yorùbá, Zulu and its scholars conduct research on endangered languages. There is also work on inclusive democracy, gender and on decolonizing the curriculum. In an academic world order overshadowed by Victor Orban and Donald Trump, academics at SOAS must fear a Central European University-like exile. ‘Watch out for the “career-focused curriculum” to become the nicer, politer way for right-wing and centrist governments to evacuate critical scholarship from higher education’. Tweeted Ben Miller @benwritesthings

It is disingenuous of Jo Johnson to warn the government about entering a culture war with universities in revenge for their opposition to Brexit. With his White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, he set in place all the machinery for government to apply to universities whatever levers of manipulation it wishes. These have led to the privileging of STEM subjects and others which universities judge will lead students to the highest earnings. This one measure – Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) takes precedence over and above any other forms of life-enriching opportunities. The previous government raised tuition fees to a level which most graduates will never repay in entirety. This now necessitates university courses becoming more closely harnessed to high-paying careers so that the monies which should be seen as an investment in education are instead repositioned as a ‘return on investment’ for both student and the government lender. Except, that investment is solely an economic one. Out of sight and excluded from the public discussion is the investment that lies in the hidden column of the spreadsheet. That investment is actually now a risk. How can we ask postgraduate students to take a gamble on becoming specialists – at their own expense – when their expertise and scholarship is likely to be declared redundant? How can scholarship survive if the only arbiter is economics? How can it survive when we cull entire subjects in a sudden and apparently unjustified edict taken without consultation? And how can UK universities survive when, apparently, the ranks of its leadership are so willing to genuflect and submit before hostile and anti-intellectual governments?

Knowledge, scholarship, truth, diligence, enquiry and democracy are all seen as a cost. Students take university degrees in subjects which they enjoy. Anybody who has taught in universities will know how ill-advised it is to recruit students who sit in class without enthusiasm or inspiration. Even the highest quality teaching will not reach them. And similarly, they are taught by staff whose devotion to a subject has carried them through 10 years of study, research and writing. To try and detach advanced study from love of the subject is to fundamentally change the dynamic and mission of higher education. And yes, Jo Johnson, it is a culture war, and it is one that academics will need to fight because their ‘leaders’ gave up four decades ago.

 

Your First is my Artefactual Algorithm

There was an interesting piece by Mike Ratcliffe on Wonkhe last week: Why my university is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. It deserves further discussion. 

Mike was writing about Nottingham Trent University’s response to government and media concerns about the rising percentage of first class degrees being awarded across the higher education sector. He cites figures of 16% in 2011 rising to 29% in 2018.

I have blogged before about the moral panic over the increasing numbers of firsts. However, in a context where some employers overlook graduates without ‘good’ degrees, and universities are rewarded in the TEF for the high salaries earned by graduates, it is inevitable that this would have provided an incentive for universities to look for ways to uplift marks.  

As Mike points out “the HE sector runs a criterion-based assessment system; firsts are not rationed according to a predetermined allocation, they are awarded for meeting the criteria…The grading ensures marks are based entirely on comparing the qualities of student work with associated written descriptors of assessment criteria.” And that is the whole point of the GBA system; it defines for students exactly what standards of work and academic practices they need to master to attain a specific grade. The learning outcomes are very clearly laid out, and the different levels of attainment exemplified with sample responses to assignments. This is good pedagogy. There should be no mystery about how to attain high marks, and students should benefit from excellent teaching and the kind of feedback that enables them to improve their work as they progress through their studies.

Grade-based assessment was introduced at Nottingham Trent around the time of the introduction of 9K tuition fees and there is even an explanatory video.  If you extend the usable range of marks from 70 to 100 in an aggregate system, then obviously this will result in a larger number of higher awards being made. This was not an artefact; it was intentional, because, as was explained to staff at the time, they should be “leading students to a high end of level standard”. It was also a justified response to that perpetual urging from externals to use the top range of marks to distinguish excellent work from the good and very good. And for the reasons I have outlined above, it was defensible on pedagogical grounds.

Nottingham Trent University now says that it is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. I wonder how the students feel about this. If universities are supposed to publish a Degree Classification Statement of Intent   which promises to “review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated” what, then, if those algorithms change between a student’s first and final years? Last year’s students appear to have been the subjects of a re-jigged algorithm which, instead of awarding a first to students who have at least half of their credits in the first class category, they must now have the majority. This will not have affected those students whose aggregate score is over 70%, but may have affected some of those who exhibited ‘exit velocity’ with an improved performance in their final year. This approach has reduced the number of firsts by 7.1%. But what about that injunction to reward ‘a high end of level standard’?  

If you say you’re running a criterion-led system, and then try and curtail the resulting high scores with a revised algorithm, you risk this being seen as grade-based gerrymandering. And will students be reassured to learn that lecturers who have taught them will no longer be invited to speak up in support of a higher award if their aggregate marks happen to fall on the borderline? Mike writes that “the University has also removed the power of examination boards to make discretionary classification decisions for students on the classification borderline.” There hardly seems to be any point in having an exam board if the algorithm is accorded supremacy while personalized academic judgement is evacuated.

It is a shame that universities cannot summon the confidence to assert that improving teaching has been a priority and that, as a result, student achievement has been enhanced. It seems absurd to take pride in claiming the reverse. If only higher education was driven by principles of pedagogical soundness, not by political soundbites, it might be easier to win the confidence of students, staff and government.

The Office for Students: Ten reasons why it is not for students at all

The Office for Students (OfS) is the new regulatory body for universities and higher education providers in the UK.  To date it has had a short and rather volatile history. Below is a collection of the main issues which students and academics should be aware of.

  1. The OfS will ensure that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) becomes even more prominent for universities who are to be assessed on their ‘outcomes’. However, the TEF is relatively untested, and its critics charge that it will not diagnose poor teaching any more than it will uncover excellent teaching. It is not designed for these tasks since no teaching is actually observed. Teaching quality is inferred from proxy measures which have a very distant and disputed relationship with teaching. See this blog from Dorothy Bishop, and this previous one from me.
  2. The TEF will not incentivise universities to prioritise teaching. Unlike the REF (Research Excellence Framework) which has, arguably, recognised and rewarded excellence in research wherever it is found (notwithstanding Derek Sayer’s well-founded objections), a very different set of circumstances obtain for the TEF. Let’s take an example. Several universities have seen fit to cut courses in Modern Languages in response to falling student demand. Languages other than English and Irish Gaelic will soon no longer be taught in Northern Ireland, so how would an undisputed finding of excellent teaching affect that decision? Will universities channel funding to support excellent teaching wherever it is found? I predict they will not, and that is because funding follows the student. It is a formula designed to disrupt the traditional right of universities to make autonomous decisions about course provision based on the current state of knowledge and discovery. The fact is, when university curricular decisions are outsourced to the caprice of 18 year olds, there is little point in trying to pretend any other factor counts. If you have decided to expand a course because it attracts funding and international students, then no amount of poor National Student Survey scores will not dislodge that conclusion.
  3. Ergo, poor teaching will be condoned and concealed by universities in the flawed and distorted market of UK higher education. The TEF is still useful to universities as it offers a justification for getting rid of unconventional academics who are disliked by managers.
  4. The Office for Students seems to fixate on issues which don’t really register as important for students. Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, answered questions from The Joint Committee on Human Rights – a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament on 17th January 2018. Here he exposes the mythology of a crisis of freedom of speech in universities which is not top of students’ priorities.Amatey Doku
  5. The Office for Students has no representative from the National Union of Students on the board. This is in spite of promises from Theresa May that the NUS would work in consultation with the new regulatory body. The sole student representative, Ruth Carlson, is relatively unknown. The circumstances of her appointment are not clear, but the new minister for higher education, Sam Gyimah, revealed that she was chosen from outside of the pool of three candidates considered appointable by the interview committee. We can only speculate what advantages Ms Carlson’s appointment might confer on the board of the OfS, but expertise in student representation does not appear to be among them. She is studying civil engineering, however, and this might plug a gap on the board (see 6).
  6. Not a single other scientist or engineer has been selected for the board.
  7. The Office for Students’ mission is defined in Chapter 2 para 37 of Success as a Knowledge Economy, the government White Paper published in May 2016.

“The OfS will be explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice, and will make sure that a high quality higher education experience is available for students from all backgrounds. For the first time, we will put the interests of the student at the heart of our regulatory landscape. By enabling better student outcomes, we will also protect the interests of taxpayers and the economy”.

But the suspicion at this point is that the government’s understanding of competition and choice is restricted to the introduction of new private providers into the system. The fear is that they will choose to provide cheap-to-teach courses, like law and business, and this will further restrict the choices available to students. This concern is grounded in the fact that among the members of the board are Carl Lygo, former VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. The rest of the appointees can be seen here  and we note that private sector and business professionals predominate over practitioners in higher education.

8. There are real doubts about how the quality of higher education courses will be protected by the new regulator. The OfS will oversee the award of university title to new HE providers – a privilege currently only bestowed by the Privy Council. The OfS has already shown signs that it may tolerate a less rigorous pathway to university status than we see with current arrangements. Alarm bells rang for many academics when the UA92 Manchester United Academy was announced. The new regulatory arrangements allow for degree awarding powers to be issued with no demand for a track record of quality teaching and assessment under the supervision of an established university.  OfS will also be able to revoke the title of university for those institutions it deems to be failing. The current quality assurance system works with universities if they are seen to be in need of improvement, but students now might start studying at a university, only to find their institution downgraded or fined into bankruptcy.

9. The OfS has already demonstrated poor judgement in its attempt to appoint Toby Young to the board. Given the structures outlined in the White Paper, this appointment must have been overseen by ministers (namely Jo Johnson), and Young would have been interviewed by Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of OfS. The appointment of student representative, Ruth Carlson (see point 5 above) seems similarly unorthodox. This action has alienated most parts of the sector, as we can only assume it was meant to. We need an independent regulator which can work with universities, not antagonise them for the sake of it.

10. Jo Johnson, the previous minister for higher education, has suggested that it will be within the remit of OfS to issue financial penalties to universities which award ‘too many’ firsts and 2.1 degrees. Firstly, as I argue (in a forthcoming piece), there is no firm basis for charging universities with grade inflation. Secondly, there is no suggestion at the moment what might constitute ‘too many’. If the OfS does interfere with universities’ cherished independence and academic judgement in this manner, it is unlikely to make many friends among students it counts as its central constituency.

The unease which has greeted the launch of the OfS has prompted Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ representative body, to write of the recent consultation document from the OfS, “The tone of the document is, in places, confrontational and appears preoccupied by short-term political concerns rather than the larger long-term task of creating a credible, independent regulator”.

The OfS has shown itself to be willing to pursue moral panics that vice chancellors feel originate with a government piqued by perceived opposition to its agenda (especially Brexit).  Many of the rest of us resent the ideologically motivated campaign in both government and media circles which is unsympathetic to dearly held academic values such as education for the public good and worry that the OfS is merely another vehicle by which to instigate this. I for one share Alistair Hudson’s hope that, “In the months ahead, it will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.” Sadly, the shortcomings exposed by its initial actions have meant that OfS has probably exhausted any goodwill it might otherwise have been able to claim.

The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects

This is the link to a video of a talk I gave to the Digital University in a Neoliberal Age Symposium, organised by the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group. Title: The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects.

Abstract:

In an era of neoliberal reforms, academics in UK universities have become increasingly enmeshed in audit, particularly of research ‘outputs’ via the Research Excellence Framework (REF). A new Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has emerged in 2017, whose results are determined primarily by proxy data of National Student Survey (NSS) scores, retention data and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO), i.e. salaries of graduates. This has been made possible by SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) legislation which has enabled data mining and synthesis of data streams from records held by the Student Loans Company (SLC), HMRC and universities themselves.

These two audit processes, REF and TEF, were originally envisaged as instruments to evaluate research and teaching, respectively, at institutional level. This had a distinctively neoliberal purpose in seeking to mould universities more closely towards serving the economic needs of the nation. The REF, however, has also been recruited as an instrument of individual performance management in universities, with each academic forced to compete in academic output and research funds with the most talented and unencumbered scholars. The TEF, similarly, bestows an institutional ranking, but will rapidly be repurposed in order to shape the behaviour and priorities of academics. For example, the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification allows universities to be rated according to their success against the Widening Participation (WP) agenda. In this way, universities can appear to fail by revealing larger differential outcomes for target groups according to ethnicity and social class than their benchmark permits. The discourse of the TEF legislation, bolstered by studies from HEA/HEPI, assumes the source of inequality of outcome is poor teaching and requires corrective action by universities. Further justification for surveillance and quasi-regulation is borne by appeals to ‘value for money’ and ‘competition’. Universities are positioned as subject to market forces, and students positioned as consumers. Universities are responding by creating ‘managers for the student experience’ whose responsibility it will be to oversee change, without ever addressing the question of what causes differential outcomes, or what actions on behalf of government or institutions might make a difference.

I argue that what seems to be an arbitrary constellation of proxy data points has in fact been a calculated plan to render universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The accident of accessibility, inasmuch as it overlaps with the neoliberal imperative, has determined which data shall function as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs are signalled via metrics-driven student and staff dashboards which offer no retreat from the interpretation and coding imposed by government, and the whole assemblage is cemented by discursive choices which align with neoliberal principles. In this way, the ideological purpose of the legislation and the audit is realized: the imposition of institutional and personal responsibility for structural inequality has been achieved.

The Government White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016, will form the text for corpus analysis of keywords, discourses and metaphors.

Managing malice, reaffirming Robbins

My last blog post addressed some of the misconceptions surrounding the award of first class degrees in UK universities. I was favorably surprised by the reception and the number of people who seemed relieved to be presented with another explanation than the now customary media allegations of dumbing down, declining standards and apathetic students being rewarded for sub-standard work. However, in the print media, there swiftly followed another set of familiar accusations  – that universities are admitting students with poor A levels to under-subscribed degrees.  Even more concerning, apparently these students won’t be able to secure a graduate job commensurate with their knowledge and skills.

This year’s cohort of freshers will experience uncertainty over value for money, having heard that universities are replacing credentialed academics with graduate teaching assistants or disenchanted teaching fellows.   Even lecturers with permanent posts are bailing out with stress-related illnesses.  Many students will have internalized the suspicion that a share of their £9000 could be gifted to an avaricious vice chancellor by a secretive remuneration committee. And they harbour the nagging thought that if they defer admission for a year or two, they might not have to pay such exorbitant fees.  And now, even if they overlook this catalogue of condemnation, students are told that they may be denied the prize of a first class honours degree, as universities could be punished if they award too many of them. And in any case, even the Guardian believes that academic judgement of degree classifications is so flawed it amounts to universities ‘marking their own homework’, and questions whether a first from one institution is equivalent to one from another. 

As I write, it is encouraging to know that for the first time in a long time, there has been an immediate and robust response to some of the critics from the new CEO of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, citing “misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.” It is a welcome intervention.  

The uniting theme to all these accusations is that universities are doing a poor job and standards are slipping. The tired old argument goes, that if only 5% of students were admitted to universities in 1970, and today 32.5%, then it stands to reason that the bar must have been lowered. I suggest such critics go and read this excellent blog by Mike Ratcliffe, More Means Better, which is aimed at deflating the fiction that higher education should be the provenance of a self-defined elite.

My contribution to the debate has been to rebut the argument that universities have no check on standards and quality of teaching and assessment. My last blog piece pointed out that student achievement at university is criterion referenced, i.e. if a student reaches a threshold of learning, they will be awarded the same mark as every other student at this level of achievement, regardless of how many of them there are. Every student’s work is blind-marked, moderated (double checked) by another qualified academic, and passed before an external examiner whose job it is to monitor standards and comparability. This is fair to both students, and institutions who need to safeguard standards and reputation. At present, the reputation of UK universities is high – outside of the UK. It appears to be a peculiarity of UK journalists that they condemn the system that educated them. The fact that so many who voice skepticism are graduates of Oxford University has not escaped me, but you cannot be sure whether their views are the product of careless ignorance or exclusionary elitism. We can probably assume, though, that they will foster the ascent of their own children to suitably selective universities.

Let me offer an analogy which might clarify why ‘more means worse’ arguments are unsound, and which sheds some light on objective criterion referencing and improvements in performance.  

Recently untethered from the academy, I have been able to spend time during the summer with New York Open Water – a group which organizes marathon swims in New York. The most arduous of these swims is the 8 Bridges Hudson River marathon swim. It is a multi-stage swim, and each day’s distance of between 13.2and 19.8 miles must be completed within the time window allowed by the tidal flow of the Hudson River. It is preposterously hard to swim a marathon on consecutive days over a week. Between 2011 and 2016 only six swimmers managed to successfully accomplish all seven stages of this 120 mile swim between Kingston and New York Harbor, and there were two years when nobody made it. Nevertheless, the 2017 cohort furnished us with nine new entrants to the 8 Bridges hall of fame. Could anybody seriously suggest that somehow the standard required for success has slipped? Quality control tanked? Demand an investigation from the regulatory body? The 2017 event took place over the same course, had the same organizers and was run under the same rules of marathon swimming.

So what might account for the sudden and massive increase in success? Firstly, the profile of this event has risen across the international community of marathon swimmers, so many more people see it as an accomplishment they might wish to add to their CVs. Secondly, techniques of training, nutrition, mental and physical preparation have been customized towards the requirements of this event. It adds up to a highly targeted approach to this demanding swim, and a consequent rise in the success rate has been the result.

The analogy with university degrees is this; contrary to the misgivings of the media critics, universities have become much more focused on how to teach students in interesting and varied ways, on how students learn, and how to embed feedback and progression into the assessment process. Every student is made aware of the requirements of the course, the learning outcomes and assessment criteria. No surprise, then, that they focus their efforts on meeting these.

It is different world from the exams encountered by students fifty years ago. Then, nobody thought it off limits to set questions on material the course had not actually covered. Arts and humanities courses, particularly, saw their final exams as an assessment of general erudition. I have seen a finals paper from Bristol university (circa 1965) sat by all arts students which assumed knowledge of literature, poetry, artistic movements as well as music. There was no preparatory taught course; students were just expected to have absorbed this knowledge as part of their autonomous intellectual development. The Robbins principle had, after all, stated that the role of universities was to produce “cultivated men and women; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.” 

It would be facile to compare exam papers from the 1960s with those of today and declare the latter less challenging. In the intervening years, the emphasis has swung from familiarity with high culture, to the acquisition of transferable skills and intellectual agility. We now appear to be moving beyond this to a requirement for demonstrable ‘learning gain’ in graduates. 

Failure to understand the evolution of teaching and learning in universities may be at the root of some of the dismissive articles we have seen over the last year. It sometimes happens that the products of elite institutions believe their own myths. When you are told you are very ‘bright’, and are surrounded by others who are deemed ‘bright’, you tend to believe in your own exceptionalism and entitlement, when in fact ‘bright’ is often nothing more than the expression of privilege and social capital. As an educator of over 30 years, I am unimpressed by ‘bright’ because it has always seemed one of the least useful predictors of success in higher education, or indeed life. Give me the curious, the challenging, the creative, the hardworking, but above all the persistent. And a measure of self-belief is always helpful. These are the attributes I observed among the marathon swimmers I met, and among the students who distinguished themselves by improving year on year. So rather than objecting that universities are somehow diluting their standards and bestowing worthless degrees, let’s at least acknowledge two important legacies. Students are emerging from school, motivated, qualified with A levels and fully eligible for higher education. This is also one of the outcomes envisaged by Lord Robbins who argued that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” Robbins believed that many more students could benefit from university than had been able to access it prior to 1963. He went to great lengths to provide statistical evidence that more would not mean worse in terms of lowering of standards, and indeed the expansion of UK universities was matched by enhanced international standing.

The Robbins’ principle of democratization of universities was what we wished for the nation’s young people in 1963 and it is worth defending today. It is what our politicians and journalists want for their children, even as they undermine those advantages for everyone else’s.