Today in collegiate dystopia: “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

September 5, 2019 • 8:45 am

by Greg Mayer

Harry Lambert has a very interesting article at New Statesman America on “The great university con: how the British degree lost its value.”  I’m saddened but not surprised to find that the rot in American higher education extends across the Atlantic. The causes and manifestations, show much in common on both sides of the Pond. At its heart is the reconceptualization of higher education not as an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, but as an industry that provides services to private individuals and corporations. This is the essence of the neoliberal consensus on higher education.

Some excerpts from Lambert’s piece:

Over the past 30 years, successive governments, from Thatcher to Blair, to Cameron and May, have imposed a set of perverse incentives on universities. Their effect has been to degrade and devalue the quality of British degrees. Academic standards have collapsed. In many institutions, it is the students who now educate the universities, in what grades they will tolerate and how much work they are willing to do. “We have got to protect ourselves from complaints,” says Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

In 1985, the Thatcher government published the Jarratt Report, which stressed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”. The problem, the report argued, was “the tradition of vice-chancellors being scholars first and acting as a chairman of [an academic] senate carrying out its will”, rather than “leading it strongly”. Scholars should not run universities – business leaders must.

Note that, though begun under Tory Thatcher, Labor’s Blair continued the trend—that is why I refer to the current socially dominant view of higher education as a “consensus”—it is adopted by both left and right. We also see Campbell’s Law rearing its ugly head– the “perverse incentives” that distort the function of the universities. In response to those incentives, universities have been pumping out ever increasing numbers of apparently highly qualified graduates. But how did this “miracle” occur:

This supposed university miracle can only have happened in one of three ways. The first is that schools [in the US, high schools] have, over the past 30 years, supplied universities with students of a far higher calibre than in the recent past. This would be a notable achievement, as the university students of the past were the select few – in the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do. The second is that universities have taken historically indifferent students and turned them into unusually capable graduates. And the third is the reality: the university miracle is a mirage.

The chief theoretical debate within the neoliberal consensus is whether higher education is best seen as a provider of credentials to individuals, or as providing a workforce to corporations. Under the first view, students are customers; under the second, students are the product. Both can be seen in what Lambert reports. For student customers, they are paying for credentials, and academic considerations are a barrier to obtaining what they have paid for: grades that insure the granting of credentials.

Grade inflation is the inevitable outcome of the system universities operate under. There is little reason to suspect that the system is about to change, or is even understood. “The logical conclusion of the current drift is that by 2061, 100 per cent of people [will] get Firsts,” says Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. In fact, if the next 20 years are like the past 20, it won’t take half that time.

The whole is well worth a read; here’s Lambert’s parting excerpt:

Universities are governed by a set of incentives, laid down by successive governments. What they are neither incentivised nor mandated to provide is a baseline of quality education. While a handful of universities demand quality, and some students choose to work hard, the system is not designed to ensure either. As many academics report, statistics suggest and students widely know, it is possible to sail through university with a 2:1 or First without working or learning very much at all.

This is precisely what the government implicitly encourages. It is the rational outcome of the system under which universities operate. Call it the self-perpetuating spiral of shattering standards. It starts with the academic. They are faced with an inadequate student: why do they give them a 2:1? Because they are being pressured to by university management. That pressure is typically implicit; occasionally it is explicit.

h/t Brian Leiter

33 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

  1. This account of grade inflation is all true (ditto also high-school exam grades). But I suspect it does not matter that much. That’s because degree classes really only matter for the first few years of a career. So you’re only comparing people within similar cohorts, not people from cohorts decades apart.

  2. Should really come as no surprise to anyone but yet, it does. Everywhere you look in society today, money has taken over. The government, the schools, the corporations. The dumb down in American education started long ago with, Why Johnny Can’t Read but that was just a symptom of the larger problem.

    Just look at what we here have as a government or in the U.K. It is all a product of the same low quality and lack of leadership throughout. People that sold their morals to the highest bidder and have no shame for doing it. Just give the kids a pass and move on.

    1. I can only quote from my recollection of my education in New Zealand 50 years back, but I think it’s probably the case in the UK then and now: a degree is conferred with one of three or possibly four grades of honors: first class (1); second class, first division (2:1); second class, second division (2:2); and either third class (3) or no honors, depending on the university and degree.
      So a 1 would correspond roughly to an A, 2:1 to a B(+?), 2:2 to a B(-), and 3 or no honors to C, as the lowest passing grade.
      If you’re doing it on grade points, and your passing GPA is 2.0, then I would guess a first corresponds roughly to 3.5+, 2:1 to 3.0-3.5, 2:2 to 2.5-3.0, and 3/no honors to 2.0-2.5.
      But the scheme was based on the idea that a 1 is reserved for perhaps the top 10% of the class and that a non-trivial percentage fail, as was the case at the time I’m talking of. Grade inflation has made all this terribly dated: the same terms are used but the significance has decreased dramatically.

      1. Yep. In mathematical subjects (in the universities I’ve been at)

        >=70% = 1st
        60-69% = 2:1
        50-59% = 2:2
        45-49% = 3rd
        < 45% = Fail

        Or something like that.

  3. Before my third year of law school, the school administration decided that the school should inflate its grades (presumably to keep graduates competitive in the job market with those of other schools where such grade inflation had occurred). Their solution was to add the grade of A+, thinking that the result would be to raise all grades by a third.

    As it turns out, the law school faculty, which had opposed the idea, was an obstinate bunch, and what they did was merely to add a + mark to the highest A in each class and keep all the other grades the same.

    Ah, but that was a long time ago. And as the famous first line of AP Hartley’s novel has it, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

  4. Once the Academy has embraced the idea that all objective assessments of cognitive performance are really just white supremacy, and that everything is subjective and based on your racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation identity, then there is no non-question begging way of grading people.

    The Academy has been “discredited” pursuant to the Academy.

    And since the work of the Academy is simply to impose some “racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation” hierarchy in accordance with some revealed preferences based on putative “past oppression”, don’t be surprised when people who don’t share the Academy’s religion come along and defund it.

  5. It can be true that, on average, university students no longer study as hard, learn as much or retain as much knowledge as in years past and also be true that just as many students as ever study hard, learn a great deal and largely retain the knowledge they acquire. That is simply the effect of enlarging the percentage of persons attending university so that the mix of students includes more persons who are less prepared for university study, less academically qualified and, in some cases, less interested in working hard to acquire knowledge. The real question is whether increasing the proportion of the population that attends college degrades the learning experience of those who study hard, want to learn and have the aptitude for it. My guess that there is, on balance, no such degradation.

    1. I think what you’ve said significantly mitigates the issue;

      ….in the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do.

      The author implies that those 8 to 19 percent were better qualified for college than those who didn’t go then but are able to now. I don’t know if that’s true or not but the fact remains those 8 to 19 percent are still going to school. It may be true that many students today don’t get the education they pay for, but those who excel in school still do.

      I also think we should be careful of the influence of Golden Age fallacies here. In America, for example, it wasn’t until 1965 that a majority of white people even graduated high school (for blacks that didn’t happen until the mid-80s). We are now only the second or third generation along from a time where most people were excluded from a college education anyway.

      It just shouldn’t cost so damn much.

    2. That is just too simplistic and assumes the classes, the material all stays the same during this process. When students go to instructors and administration complaining, crying about the grades they received and the answer is, no problem, we will just increase the grades by 40%. If they say they are feeling unsafe because the teacher says things that have been said many times before but the teacher is required to apologize or be fired, how does that not affect everyone. How do even the best people not become affected by this nonsense?

      1. The way I see it, Randall, it’s something like the Internet – a vast wasteland of mediocrity and worse. But in there, amongst all the nonsense are gems, places like WEIT, for example. Islands (or maybe well-isolated peninsulas) of quality in a sea of crap.

        Now I don’t know if the material they teach today is somehow weaker (less educational? less rigorous? I’m not sure where you’d go with this) than in the past, but I doubt it. That’s because in amongst the problems with grade inflation and intellectual vacuosity that comes from pandering to some students wishes, there are the Curies and Cricks and Coynes. They’re still there, taking classes (they’ll take the hard ones, you can bet) and I see no reason think things are worse now.

        Like the intertubes, there’s just a lot more crap to wade through.

        1. My daughter and oldest child did “Lakes and Oceans” biology. I was pleasantly surprised how seriously her class took their studies, how well they were thought to think for themselves by their teachers/professors, and how brilliant several of them were.
          Although I share this fear of inflation, I think in the sciences this inflation will not kill brilliance. A small light, let us say.

    3. In the US at least, what you describe does not seem to be the case. What does seem to be the case is that higher education has become a money making racket pretty much just as described by the article the OP references. Higher education has become big business focused on making money instead of quality education. There are many more universities, many more types of degrees and many of them are clearly intent on separating suckers from their money for little real value in return.

      And at the same time, growing hand in hand with this trend a degree of some kind has become required to have a reasonable chance of getting more and more different kinds of jobs that in the past did not require a degree. Just about any job above the proverbial flipping burgers requires a degree of some sort these days. In very many cases it doesn’t even matter what the degree is or where it came from. The degree requirement is very often nothing more than just another way of whittling down the stack of applicants before having to actually start vetting people rather than a metric by which an employer can determine if the applicant is likely to have the specialized knowledge and training that the job requires. And yet even the most worthless degrees cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

      There has always been a segment of university students that attend university simply because that’s what they are expected to do. They go, join a fraternity or sorority and party their way through college and perhaps eke out a C in some general business degree program. What’s going on today is quite different from that.

      I’m sure that in many of the more highly technical degree programs that the rot is not so bad. That’s good but that’s only a tiny percentage of students / degrees.

      1. Yes and as higher ed tries to make more and more money it also follows the capitalist economic model of the day that says that you must grow, grow, grow. Constant expansion of campus, greater student numbers – these all are considered the goals of the academy instead of turning out high quality graduates.

  6. I wonder if the outlook of education as consumer satisfaction has something to do with the extraordinary growth, since the 1970s, of education as a fashion accessory, exemplified in such products as post-modernism/cultural studies/feminist discourse analysis, etc. etc. Few of the purveyors of these products actually believe their own pitch, that science is just another narrative, like voodoo, and is moreover the narrative guilty of hegemonic white male colonialism. Their disbelief in their own pitch is demonstrated when they suffer a toothache and visit a dentist trained in colonialist hegemonic scientific medicine, rather than a voodoo hougan. This behavior, true I would guess of 95% of pomo academics, shows that their academic discourse is merely an affectation or a fashion accessory.

  7. There’s an interesting parallel with what has happened in education with what has happened with TV news. They used to be good until the profit motive was introduced. Now they suck but, ironically, the give the people what the asked for and, supposedly, want.

    The simplistic and wrong answer is that capitalism corrupts. A more sensible conclusion is that unfettered capitalism is not all good all the time. If we listen to the Dem presidential candidates, especially Warren, we are headed for a revolution in the way we regard capitalism. There are those on the Left who hate it. Warren says she’s a capitalist what has a lot of anti-capitalist ideas. I hope it all works out.

    Thanks for the reference to Campbell’s Law. I was familiar with the effect but didn’t know it had a name.

  8. Maybe of interest:

    Derek Bok: Improving the Quality of Education. September 21, 2017
    By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates, policy makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students are learning in college may be declining, writes Derek Bok.
    https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/09/21/how-improve-quality-higher-education-essay

    Bok is a former president of Harvard University. His books include:

    Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton University Press (PUP), 2004
    Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Revised ed., PUP, 2008
    Higher Education in America. Revised ed., PUP, 2015
    The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges. PUP, 2017
    https://press.princeton.edu/search?all=derek+bok
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bok

    1. ” . . . policy makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students are learning in college may be declining, writes Derek Bok.”

      Seems no less reasonable to say that students forget some greater or lesser amount of what they have learned. They retain it long enough to at least pass an exam.

      One not infrequently reads of education stake-holders seeking to reduce K-12 learning loss during summer vacation. I should think one solution is for a student to be sufficiently self-disciplined to occasionally review material. (An unrealistic expectation in the age of digital distraction?) Re: the old “If you don’t use [review] it, you lose it.

      In that context, what percentage of non-STEM PhD/EdD/MBA-JD university system presidents (lamenting the state of student knowledge retention) can still derive (if they ever could) the quadratic formula from y = ax^2 + bx + c, or at least solve a two-step algebra problem? Ought they retain that knowledge as a matter of principal/self-respect, and as a good example/role model, for students whom they expect to retain that knowledge?

  9. I don’t think things are quite as awful as the article suggests. Yes, grade inflation is a problem. So is the unnecessary academisation of what used to be vocational studies (eg nursing, now absurdly required to be a degree subject in the UK).

    Against such gloomy news, I think it worth pointing out, first, that most STEM courses remain fairly rigorous and properly assessed. There is an issue about whether students are well prepared for such courses; but their shortcomings are mainly down to schools, not the universities; and many of the latter have catch-up courses for those who need them.

    Second, there is now a bit of a reaction against university courses that don’t offer much by way of usable qualifications. Practical apprenticeships are at last becoming more attractive: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/aug/15/young-people-more-sceptical-of-need-to-go-to-university-poll-finds

    Finally, Ofsted are getting on the case of grade inflation, and are putting pressure on colleges to moderate their excesses.

    All is not well; but it’s not as bad as it’s painted. Sorry for the length of this post.

    1. It’s my geezer-ish sense that the UK may be starting to experience what the US has been experiencing for some time, what you describe as the unnecessary academisation of what used to be vocational studies.
      Take nursing, your example. In the US, there are two levels of nurses, registered nurses (RN) and licensed practical nurses (LPN). RNs need a degree, and I don’t have a problem with that because they have significant responsibilities for patient care, LPNs I think can get by with vocational (here it would be community college) training. But we have, for example, that optometry requires not only a basic science degree but also a four-year graduate education; and pharmacy the same. I think an undergraduate education would be enough for both.
      And the UK, and UK-based countries like New Zealand and Australia, (and, I think, a lot of Europe, and Japan and Korea) have historically had medicine, dentistry, and law as undergraduate degrees; whereas in the US they are graduate degrees.
      But I think this battle is long since lost.

  10. Too much blaming the government, too little blaming the colleges themselves. They didn’t have to go along with any of this if they didn’t want to. In the U.S, at least, the government’s main contribution was to heavily subsidize student loans, giving students the power of the purse.

    1. As a general law of politics:

      A subsidy to consumers without effective regulatory cost controls on providers results in providers raising their costs to consumers above and beyond even the level of subsidy, thereby creating a political cry for even higher levels of subsidies from consumers (and provider-funded lobbyists).

      It doesn’t matter if you are talking higher ed or health care. All you get is institutional bloat and consumers end up worse then they started.

      Don’t be fooled by the Non-Profit B.S. either, executives of non-profits get paid based on the size of their budgets and balance sheets, so it is always in their direct financial interest to sponsor big capital campaigns for new boondoogles and sports complexes. They can always switch to another college before contact is made with the financial iceberg.

      1. The way to break from the pernicious law of supply and demand is when the person paying for the good or service is not the person consuming the good or service.

        Since the consumer doesn’t pay (directly), they don’t care about the cost. When the person paying is the government, and the government doesn’t care about the cost either, then the supplier can raise their price up to the point that the consumer starts to eat costs again.

        The other way to work this in say insurance markets is to bribe the insurance broker, in which case the broker refers to your high cost plan and the consumer relies on the expertise of the broker. This is, of course, illegal, but it happens all the time. In contrast, higher ed and health care are legal scams.

  11. “Over the past 30 years, successive governments, from Thatcher to Blair, to Cameron and May, have imposed a set of perverse incentives on universities.”
    I would that shows the problem is too much State influence and insufficient private sector incentives. Hence the growing number of badly educated graduates.

  12. It was my impression when I visited London and Birmingham in 2012 that there were way too many hyperspecialized degrees, and not enough general arts and science.

    Vocational training (as many of these were) is fine, and some deserves to be university like in character, but I think that it can get too “brittle” -and not allow flexibility of jobs, etc.

    I have (since my undergraduate days) been a deliberate generalist and, eventually, it serves me well even though I work in software/application security. In fact, my philosophy background (most of what I did) is now proving incredibly valuable as people confront the foundational questions in computing and other fields as they try to be “innovative”, etc.

  13. The article rhymes well with my own experiences as a tutor at the University of Oxford. When my DPhil supervisor went on his teaching sabbatical, I was allowed to tutor some of his students. One of these was an exchange student who was at the university for one term only. Following an exchange with the student, it was decided that our tutorials would be focussed on essay writing: I’d set him a topic every week and he’d produce an essay in the topic as a basis for our discussion.

    In the first week, the student was very late (4 days) in handing the essay in, and it was a mix of absolute garble and laser-sharp writing (in both content and style). A quick google of the better passages revealed that they had been plagiarised from an online textbook. I flagged this to my supervisor who advised that I get in touch with the head tutor at the student’s host college. Doing so, the response was lukewarm: I was told that these things happen and that if I told the student why this was not acceptable it wouldn’t happen again and it wouldn’t be considered a big deal for the university since tutorial material wasn’t penalised if plagiarised. This didn’t sit well with me, so I printed the university guidelines on plagiarism and told the student that this was a very serious incident. The usual platitudes and excuses followed and I had him re-write the essay.

    The re-written essay was just bad: garbled, and it was clear that he didn’t understand the underlying material that I had asked him to read, digest, and communicate. So we focussed the tutorial on going through the basic concepts (and not the final-year materials I had been asked to tutor him on). And so this continued for five week. At the point of our final tutorial, the student had learned how to write an acceptable essay that showed some understanding of the underlying material. I have him a C, for effort, and communicated this to his college: that I’d given him a C in his final essay, but that I’d give him a D on the tutorials overall (and I justified this saying that I felt it was too generous, but that he demonstrated teachability since he’d improved significantly over our five weeks).

    This is when the troubles began.

    The student was not happy with the D. And neither was the college; asking me several times if I was sure, *really* sure that I wanted to give the student this grade and not a higher one. I persisted and said that I was already uncomfortable since I felt the D was more than the student deserved. The student of course wanted to appeal the grade, feeling that he deserved at least a B (if not an A), ‘for effort’. The college (in the form of the head tutor) also harassed me and explained that I was smashing the student’s career prospects, since my grade would be the student’s grade in the course since he was there only for one term and couldn’t be graded on the normal scale. I persisted and the student was given his C. Afterward, I was reprimanded by my supervisor for having kicked up such a fuss (and his reputation has, I presume, also been a bit tarnished). I made no apologies: I had been generous, because the student was a disaster, and, as I made clear in my communications with the college, that they had disregarded their responsibility to the student since these problems should have been caught a long time ago—way before he was accepted as an exchange student on an advanced course in the first place. (He was a senior, but at a level that I thought comparable to a poorly-educated high school-graduate).

    The experience left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I have very little respect for the Oxbridge universities these days. And that says something, since I have research degrees from both. They call me once a year to ask for donations and I reject them point-blank, without hesitation or remorse, saying that they didn’t teach me anything and that I paid through my nose for branded degrees and that I wouldn’t do it again if I knew what I know now.

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