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The Forum > Article Comments > Standards problematic in tertiary education > Comments

Standards problematic in tertiary education : Comments

By Gavin Moodie, published 30/4/2010

There is difficulty defining academic standards enough to protect against unacceptable lapses in standards.

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Obviously there can be no objective comparison without a lowest common denominator.

The matter is also complicated by the fact that the relevant standards to be compared are not only objective: what happened on what dates, 1066 and all that jazz.

The standards to be compared also include a number of critical subjective factors, namely:
1. The student’s evaluation of whether the education received satisfies his or her purposes in enrolling for it: whether it was good, worthwhile, relevant, interesting, helped achieve life goals and so on; and
2. The evaluation of all other people, including employers, parents, MPs, and anyone who is paying for the education either voluntarily or involuntarily; whether it satisfies what *they* want the education to provide.

Since all the academic quality accreditation boards do not have a lowest common denominator, therefore their pretensions to provide objective inter-university comparisons are based on a fallacy. The problem is not peculiar to academic standards: it is peculiar to all attempts at governmental provision of services – for anything.

The nature of the fallacy, and the impossibility of the problems they are wrestling with, can be better understood by this article, which explores what would happen if barbecues were considered to be a human right which it is the responsibility of the state to provide:
Posted by Peter Hume, Friday, 30 April 2010 2:29:23 PM
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I don't know about Masters degrees, but I'm doing my doctorate on the strength of my first-class Honours dissertation, which was examined externally--and by an Oxbridge Don.
However I concur, at least about tertiary standards generally.
For my money the single biggest problem with higher education today is not so much parochial examination as privatisation.
Any self-respecting university would insist on external examination--or would be doubly rigorous when relying on its own assessments--that is if 'excellence' was the Raison d'etre. But it's not! Universities today are more and more driven by the bottom line; students 'are' money and the goal is to keep them in the system (fee paying).
Unfortunately, we can't rely on the pride and integrity of universities any more; we have to keep the bastards honest. Indeed, I think even some random assessment from third year undergraduate assessment should be cross-examined. All postgraduate studies should be examined externally 2 to 1.
I'm a casual teacher and marker, and I'm definitely sensible of pressure to keep students in the system.
Posted by Squeers, Sunday, 2 May 2010 7:07:39 PM
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I agree with much of what you say and by implication what you might predict should we continue down the path of commercialisation. I have acted in the role of an Academic Director with universities in Asian countries, where in is apparent that the fusion of the VET sector and the Higher Education sector, regarding "pathways" programmes leads to drops in standards. What happens is those universities applicants who miss out on enrolments into the "big name" local universities, enrol in less rigourous Advance Diplomas and after one year often successfully re-apply for second year undergraduate status with a Western university, including Australian universities. What tends evolve over 5-10 years is a shift from more esoteric approaches like "compare and contrast" systle asssessment to competency based training learning usually focused on a single text book supported by a publisher. Over time, standards fall. Overseas, the regional Australian universities are especially guilty of this kind of behaviour.

In Hong Kong, for example, twice each year scores of private providers comepete at the HK Conference Centre for income producing students, where the providers, like an inverse auction, bid down requirements for entry ino into VET programmes to be later leveraged to achieve advanced standing at a Western university the following year.

It is a game that three parties play, the student applicants, the local VET providers and the university Faculty deans. Of course, its their agenda that are accommodated; often to the expense of genuine students and academic standards. Herein, over time, we move from "high standards" to a "two systems" model (offshore/Australian) to the contamination of Australian system of delivery.
Posted by Oliver, Monday, 3 May 2010 8:53:18 AM
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Thanx for your comments.

I agree with Squeers that standards have become problematic with the commercialisation of education. In 1987 when universities received 90% of their revenue from government there was no incentive to compromise standards. Now universities receive only 43% of their revenue from government and thus have strong incentives to cut corners.

Also like Squeers I support external examinations for universities, as they impose on schools for university entry. However, we must be about the only 2 people to hold this position!

What Oliver reports in Asia has also been happening in Australia for several years. There are several private for profit providers of pathways programs to universities which are little more than cramming schools. And of course while Australian universities cooperate closely with these providers to maintain international student numbers they maintain barriers for domestic students transferring from Tafe institutes.
Posted by Gavin Moodie, Monday, 3 May 2010 10:29:22 AM
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What is happening in industry is that several associations accept a university degree as a base qualification and then work with employers to bring people up-to-speed with a Certified Pactitioner style accerediation which is recognised by the industry (like the CPA). The degree is merely a filter that feeds career aspirants into an HR managed stream, after-which hands-on experience is emphasised.

The AUQA does have an important role in auditing univesities. What I don't like about the process is that there are long cycles and the universities are warned befoehand. I would like to see perhaps 20%-30% of the audits to be ad hoc. Before academia, I worked in a Bank... The auditors would just arrive and have full access to evertyhing. The AUQA has a good team but it very small for the job it needs to do.

If the Government moved towards external examination of universities, I suspect two things would happen (a) the Minister would place VCs on the Committee and (b) the professorial staff would form cross- alliances, as they do with the examination of PhDs. Going to industry could prove helpful, yet, corporate CEOs are often in their jobs by virtue political smarts, rather than technical ability.

NSW TAFE has (had?) Assessors whom complemented Examiners. These senior teachers (usually also curricula developers) would take examinations, as if students, and comment back to Head Office, before the Formal Examinations were/are ratified.
Posted by Oliver, Monday, 3 May 2010 11:25:23 AM
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Mind you, it's not just standards at the entry point that are falling. The whole academic 'industry' is highly questionable. The endless conferences seem to me like so much pro forma when the real agenda is corporate travel and binging; a twenty minute presentation is the purchase price for a stint in the capital of your choice, and it all keeps the wheels of capitalism well greased. And there's rarely anything innovative going on, just supercilious self-promotion.
As Gavin says, also, a lot of the masters courses, in the various divisions of 'business', for instance, are merely the cynical syntactical dottings and crossings necessary to streamline promotions. Big business can never be accused of not playing the game!

Meanwhile, Middlesex uni is in the process of ditching philosophy:
a move that will no doubt be applauded by the economic rationalists. The Humanities generally, divorced from GDP (apart from being good for tourism), are in danger of going extinct.
This is the 'end of history' after all though, isn't it?
Posted by Squeers, Monday, 3 May 2010 4:36:42 PM
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