Podcast 60: Professor Geoffrey Alderman on why academic standards are declining.

Podcast 60: Professor Geoffrey Alderman on why academic standards are declining.

Today I am talking to Professor Geoffrey Alderman, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at The University of Buckingham and a former Chairman of the University of London’s academic council

Professor Alderman wrote a fascinating article in The Times on 18th June A grotesque bidding game is undermining university standards” – confronting the issue of degree inflation, the pressure on lecturers to mark examinations leniently and the issue of plagiarism.

Professor Alderman stated in The Times: “Academic standards are in decline in many British universities. Students who would once have been failed their degrees pass, and students who would once have been awarded respectable lower seconds are now awarded upper seconds and even firsts.”

I ask Geoffrey Alderman about the evidence for his statement about declining standards. We also discuss plagiarism, cheating and the rise of essay writing services. For anyone involved in legal or other education, Professor Alderman’s discussion with me is well worth listening to. His views are robust, direct and to the point – refreshingly so.

Listen to the podcast: Professor Geoffrey Alderman on why academic standards are declining.


Professor Geoffrey Alderman’s website

17 thoughts on “Podcast 60: Professor Geoffrey Alderman on why academic standards are declining.

  1. Probablt one of the best podcasts to date. Fascinating & bears out my own beliefs on grade inflation – having seen some real dullards getting 2.1s.

  2. Charon,

    I am afraid that market forces, which have been held in high regard, often lead to perverse outcomes in education. There seems to be no money to be made in upholding standards-what brings in the bacon is the sale of worthless certificates in huge quantities.

  3. Geeklawyer: Quite…. it is a very serious issue – I have seen this with my own eyes inmy teaching career. It needs to be stopped.

    Plagiarism and these essay writing services are also major problems.

    Utlimately – it will destroy the reputation of the degree awards – and the position at LPC and BVC level also needs to be looked at.

    With high fees – student expectation of getting a ‘marketable qualification’ goes up. Mind you – students, rightly, have the right to expect a high standard of teaching and provision from providers / universities.

  4. James C: Market forces have clearly had an effect here. Geoffrey Alderman recognises this.

    When the Bar raised the entry level to 2.2 in the early 1980s – the result was that suddenly the number of 2.2s being awarded went up – ludicrous…. and, frankly, disgraceful.

    Why study hard to get a meaningless First or 2.1 ?

    When I was at university in the mid-seventies – out of a 100 students there was 1 First, 8-10 2.1s. Now the position is very different. Students are not that much brighter today – I’m afraid. I’ve been teaching for 25+ yers and, in my view, intelligence levels have been reasonably constant as far as I can see. This is, of course, anecdotal. I did not conduct any testing – but one can get a view over the course of a year.

    I do accept, also, that teaching standards have gone up in the last twenty five years and this may account for part of the rise in better degrees being awarded. I have no problem, of course, with this latter point – indeed, it is to be encouraged.

    However… I do accept that the final grade in an examination does depend on work level, retention ability on the day, a degree of luck. hence – the attempt to bring in course work. The internet has made course work a difficulty because of cut and paste plagiarism.

  5. Grade inflation and ‘tailoring delivery to the intake’ were amongst the reasons I got the hell out of academia, frankly. My view was that the course I ran was open to all – we took entrants from very ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds and routes – but that once on the course, the students deserved and got high standards in delivery and material and were expected to aim at comparably high standards themselves. This was increasingly described/attacked as an ‘elitist’ view by University admin and managers. Kurt Vonnegut thought he was actually making it up.

    The pressure to fit a consumer model was intense and that was four years ago. I hate to think what it is like now.

  6. Fascinating stuff, highlights a lot of things that are talked about in hushed tones amongst colleagues.

    Remedial English is a big issue, I’m sure everyone has an anecdote about this. Only recently a senior figure from our undergraduate law dept was bemoaning the inability of students to read. At undergraduate level we have a majority of native speakers, but at postgraduate level the situation is reversed.

    We have lowered the official expected English levels for foreign students (and then frequently accept less than this in negotiations with applicants when offers are being made). Not hard to think of reasons why when you consider that every non-EU student is worth well over £10k per year. Many students paying that amount have an expectation not just that they will be spoonfed everything that they need, but also that a pass at the end of it all is a given.

    Very interested to hear you bring up the UoL external system, which does buck the trend of grade inflation by having a consistently high failure rate etc. I know of several people who view a UoL external grade as the equivalent of the next level up from a conventional course where inflation has been at work. Of course while UoL are always insistent that an external degree is examined at the same level as internal ones there seems to be a fairly widespread lack of knowledge about the external course amongst employers. It would certainly be interesting to know how many graduates of the external course go on to enter practice or academia.

  7. on a recent course the english of the students (foreign students included) was better than some of the english used in lectures – thought law was about words, but that’s just me, i guess. (criteria is a plural, guys)

    ‘tailoring delivery to the intake’ – is a phrase of such banality that:
    a) it is in itself an affront to the english language and
    b) i’m surprised it wasn’t used to justify our involvement in iraq

    ah well…

  8. SW: I quitelike a bit of a glass down at the old “Criterion’ gastropub.

    Ah…… SW… can you tell me the singular for ‘ephemera’… I’d like to know, so I can write to my local MP and see if he has one.

    Our language is a many splendoured thing… communication is all – and long may that continue…

    I’m almost tempted to learn to speak French properly – so that I can influence the use use of English in France…

    On that note… I must attend to my fractured middle finger on my right hand – broken this day moving furniture with a friend. It is by no means a serious injury – but it does mean that I have to drink with my left hand….

  9. as i’m sure you know, ephemera is the neuter plural of an adjective (latin).

    criterion being (either accurately rendered or not) a greek singular. maybe we should ask a greek lawyer. if only we knew one.

    lawyers seem to have set back the use of french in england so perhaps we could return the favour. i only today learned that the proper pronunciation of ‘chose’ is with a hard ‘ch’. how very churchillian.

    and by the way, i have just seen nelson mandela slagging off mugabe in a shirt worthy of johnny cash. black satin (? well shiny stuff at least) with a row of rhinestones at the collar. the man has class.

  10. What an excellent podcast, albeit about a very grim truth. It would also be interesting to look at the changing criteria regarding the award of degree classifications over the years. I suspect it would produce some alarming findings. There would undoubtedly be many people who, even with the same marks they got 10 years ago (or less), would today find themselves awarded a different class of degree. Furthermore, different universities give to themselves different levels of discretion when determining the appropriate classification of degree to award. For example, at some universities a first class degree can be awarded (subject to certain criteria being met) to a student whose average mark (over qualifying modules / subjects) could be less than 65% whereas at a different university it my be necessary to get an average of close to, if not actually, 70% across qualifying modules / subjects. Very worrying…

    AD 🙂

  11. My Dear Charon,

    My own experience of solicitors,which is based on a rather small sample, is that most of them cannot write.

    I am surprised that they managed to obtain any kind of academic degree:perhaps, as Prof Alderman says, they are handed out like smarties.

  12. Pingback: On the naughty step | Nearly Legal

  13. “It is not the business of univeristies to teach remedial English…” – well, now I understand why Geoffrey Alderman has been deliberately undermining the English Department of the University of Buckinham. They serve precisely this function for overseas students, in addition to (very successfully) teaching English Literature at both under- and post- graduate level. I guess that doctrine is still chief…

    A pity, really: the argument is (apparently) aimed at the English from the poor backgrounds being brought to the good professor’s own high levels of English- rather classist in itself an attitude, to be quite honest- and then effects poor old Johnny Foreigner in practise. Poor show. Very poor show.

    Enough. I doubt you’ll even show this online, so I’m away.

    -Mark E.

  14. Mark E – Of course I will show this online. You have expressed a view. I assume you have the knowledge and information on the matters you raise and you have raised a perfectly reasonable point on the issue of English. The issue about Buckingham is for you to defend – but you are free to give your opinions… as far as I understand the law of England & Wales to be at the time of writing.

    I do however feel that it is a reasonable view taken by universities that undergraduates should be able to demonstrate a reasonable command of the English language – and that should also apply to overseas students if the course is being run in the English language.

    I don’t think it should be the task of university tutors to teach basic grammar and English, including spelling, to their students. That is the responsibility of primary and secondary education.

    As you know – Law is a profession where words, language, writing, meaning, grammar are important.

    In my 25 years of teaching I have experienced the lack of skill in our language, but I have not seen many examples from UK or overseas students. I accept that I cannot and do not speak for other disciplines.

  15. the less power we have over the language spoken in the country where we live, the less our access to political power. it is vital that people can express themselves. while some of the government attempts to force people from bme backgrounds to speak english are a bit heavy-handed, those who have no facility with english have a less-than-fighting chance at having any effective voice in society. fortunately, many of the children from homes where english isn’t the first language (or in some cases a language at all) learn english very well themselves and can act as a conduit for older generations with less good english. that’s an aspect of multiculturalism and it’s a bloody good one.

    interesting that mark above uses ‘practise’ rather than ‘practice’ and ‘effects’ rather than ‘affects’. my apologies for being a pedant and particularly if they are typos (to which we are all prone).

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