Paul Buckland “The university professor who stood up against dumbing down of degrees”

18 12 2013

The academic blogosphere in the UK has electrified in the last 24 hours by a newspaper report about the legal victory of an academic who fought “marks inflation” at his institution.  For the original story, see here.

Personally, I’ve never seen any evidence of the problem described in the article. However, I’ll accept the article’s contention that marks inflation is so widespread as to be problematic. (As most economists will tell you, a bit of monetary inflation can be a good thing).

From my imperialist North American point of view, the depressing/hilarious thing about this article is that many UK academics and policymakers think that the solution to the dumbing down of higher education is to add yet another layer of bureaucracy or more rigorous regulations.

A damning select committee report published last summer said the system for checking university standards was “out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced”. It also accused vice-chancellors of “defensive complacency” over the system and said that whistleblowers, like Professor Buckland, needed more protection.

MPs recommended that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which checks that university procedures protect quality, be abolished or transformed to give it powers to police teaching and degree standards. Not everyone agreed with them, including Peter Williams, former head of the agency. He said that a “Spanish inquisition” of the university sector, one of the most successful in the world, was unwarranted.

 

The proposal by the MPs is statism run amok. I understand that the British fixation with inspection/monitory/Factory Inspectors is deeply rooted and goes back the social legislation of the Victorian Era (see below). At times, this approach works. I’ll concede that as I am no libertarian ideologue.

 

However, you can’t regulate your way out of this particular problem. Allow the spontaneous order of the market to solve it: if a university is stupid enough to burn up its reputational capital by issuing lots of worthless degrees, doing so will harm the institution in the long run.

Now there are, of course, short-termist managers who might wish to pursue this course of action. A university manager who is two years from pension age might not care that much about the university’s long-term viability, especially since they know that their pension isn’t tied to the financial health of any particular university. However, if such managers are allowed to get away with pursuing policies that devalue the institution in the longer term, there is an institutional governance problem that needs to be solved, fast.  Part of the solution would be to re-write university charters  to give alumni greater power over how the university is run, since the alumni understand that university policy influences the value of their degrees, which is typically a degree-holders second-most valuable asset, right after one’s house.

According more power to faculty via the university senate might also help, since faculty have lots of hostage capital tied up in the university and they don’t want its reputation to be ruined.  Academics don’t want the reputations of their employers to be ruined for entirely self-interested reasons: if it becomes known that they work for a degree mill, it will be much harder for them to land big grants or maintain the respect of their buddies from grad school days.

I’m convinced that the one of the reasons US universities became great was that they accorded considerable power to alumni and faculty. Sometimes giving too much power to alumni is problematic, especially when the alumni devote too many resources to spectator sports, but overall the system works.

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