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Monday, July 13, 1998 Published at 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK


Devalued degrees?

Are university qualifications easier than they were?

University exam questions are getting progressively easier while marking becomes more generous, according to academics.

More than 30 academics have voiced their concerns about declining standards to the BBC's Here and Now programme.

Watch Tony Morris's report on Here and Now
Many asked for their identities to be protected. However, a recently retired maths lecturer who taught at Loughborough University, Stan Sherman, agreed to speak out.

Mr Sherman, who has been concerned for some time about the way exams are marked, said departmental guidelines set out that the overall failure rate in a module he taught should not be more than 10%.

[ image: Stan Sherman:
Stan Sherman: "Marks adjusted to ensure target was not exceeded"
"I do not think that Loughborough is necessarily any worse in this respect than any other university. The problems are the same - to attract students to get the money to pay the staff."

Loughborough University confirmed that memos had been sent to staff in 1995 and 1996 stating that if students studied diligently "there should be no more than 10% failures", but this was only guidance and the average failure rate since then had been above 10%.

The university denied that marks were increased to allow more students to pass. Adjusting marks - moderation - was common practice which helped to maintain fairness between courses, it said.

Professor John Walton was an external examiner in history until he became so disillusioned with falling standards that he refused to do any more external examining for undergraduates.

He believes some universities cannot afford to fail students - throwing someone off a course also means throwing away that student's funding.

[ image: Prof John Walton: Quit]
Prof John Walton: Quit
"There are students who haven't worked, who stay in the system because the system needs them and who shouldn't be there," he said.

"At one institution, I was asked to turn round the marks for a course very quickly. It was assumed that I would rubber stamp the marks. That was quite clear.

"What I actually ended up doing was remarking a whole course because students were being given 2.1 grades on the basis of having read a couple of chapters in a single book."


The percentage of students achieving top marks in degree courses has increased dramatically over the last 20 years.

A survey of 70 leading British companies carried out by Here and Now found that nearly two-thirds believe improvements in exam grades are due to "more lenient marking".

Almost half said that they now have to train some new graduates in skills and knowledge previously taught at university.

[ image: David John:
David John: "Standards have slipped"
The head of management development and selection at British Steel, David John, said: "There was a time when you could say 'a graduate is a graduate is a graduate'. That's no longer the case.

"I think the most marked difference is the variability and regrettably we have to say too that the class of degree is no longer a particularly reliable indicator of the calibre of the people coming through."

Responsibility for the day-to day running of universities lies with their vice-chancellors, who do not accept that standards are declining.

[ image: Diana Warwick:
Diana Warwick: "There are ways of putting things right, that's the point"
The chairwoman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Diana Warwick, said: "I think the big issue is that standards are changing. What universities do is changing.

"The students who come into university have changed dramatically - the number of students who come to study part-time, the number who come to do professional qualifications.

"But universities have still got to deliver the goods. If there are criticisms we've got to put those criticisms right.

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