Lecturer confirms 'pressure to mark leniently'

24 Jun 2008

I read you article "Students: Customers or Learners" on the BBC web site with interest.

I am a lecturer in one of the "big" London universities and teach science undergrads and postgrads and supervise PhD students.

Many of my colleagues are seriously concerned about the basic language and written skills of many of our students, especially at undergrad level. Some are truly dreadful. Since these courses are now much larger, the problems are much more evident. The problem here is not the foreign students so much, but British students whose first language is English.

Too many poor quality students are starting university courses. They bring in valuable income and there is pressure to be lenient with marking, or at least the marking schemes are too generous and reward poor work too easily. There is too much of a business ethos within the university, which assumes that the student is saying "I've paid my fee, now give me my degree". The ethos of academic excellence is now taking second place.

In addition, I have seen the number of 1st Class degrees increasing year on year, with as many as 30% of students on some courses gaining firsts. When I was at university, a 1st was a real achievement and was awarded only occasionally. The universities are seriously devaluing our degrees. I was recently at a talk given by our Principle during which a league table of 1st class degrees awarded at the big UK universities was shown. He lamented the fact that we were not nearer the top of the table. I could not believe what I was hearing. He regarded this measure as a competitive indicator and a measure of quality. In my opinion, and that of many of my colleagues who were listening, this summed up the problem with our system. It is the heads of the universities that are a major part of the problem. They have an understandable fear of loosing income, but they are sacrificing quality over quantity.

I noted that "Universities UK" have been rejecting all recent criticisms. If possible, it would be very valuable for people like you to keep this problem in the public domain. I'm sure if there was a survey of lecturers' concerns over standards, you would see this over and over again, regardless of what the universities themselves say. Lecturers are, of course, not in a strong position to challenge the system since there is little outside influence to support their views.

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