As Australian universities rethink their place in the international market for undergraduate students, finding ways of articulating and ensuring academic standards continues to be an unresolved and critical issue.
The market agenda will now include retaining our own undergraduate students - who will be more likely in future to consider overseas course options. They will make their choices on the basis of cost, reputation for standards, and international career outcomes. A rapid advance in policies and processes to ensure standards across the sector is needed. This is particularly so if Australia is to be a contender in the emerging international competition for the best and brightest undergraduate students.
Assessment of student work is the first line of defence by which universities protect the quality and reputation of their awards. Declining academic standards have forever been a source of complaint from academics who see the product first hand: it is easy to dismiss the complaints as the predictable responses of those looking backwards at a relatively small and selective system. However, the negative observations over the past decade have intensified.
This is an international phenomenon. The recent debates about standards in Australia reflect worldwide trends and concerns that follow from the dramatic expansion of student numbers, changes in admission standards and declining staff-student ratios.
The European Union is working to harmonise national systems despite internal and external uncertainty about their quality. Likewise, Britain continues to advance its edge in standards. In all these systems, the complaints about lower standards are reported most often by academics in universities with a high level of financial dependence on international fee-paying students, and by those faced with large numbers of students with minimal entry standards.
What is less widely discussed is the sense among academics of inflated grades. Again, this is by no means peculiar to Australia. In the US grade inflation at universities with selective admissions of high-performing students has again been strongly debated. It was underlined recently when a Harvard professor took the provocative step of providing his students with two grades: one for the official transcript, the other a private assessment given directly to the students. The private grades were less flattering. The professor regarded the inflated grades given at Harvard as a scandal.
While blaming the institution is not necessarily useful or appropriate, he succeeded in making the point that the compression of grades towards the high end is an outcome of academics not having a clear and justifiable set of criteria for assessing student performance.
Without strong benchmarks and moderation processes at the discipline and subject level, academics are left to make judgments that are not always defensible in the face of external pressure. Surveys of academics in Australia, as elsewhere, find the majority is unsure whether students are better or worse now in terms of academic abilities than five years before.
The message is clear: too often we simply don't know because we have not developed systematic means of comparing standards of grading across most disciplines. According to one prominent study, many senior academic leaders in Australia admit they have no direct way of knowing about changes in standards from year to year in their universities or faculties.
This has come about in tandem with the decline in opportunity, time and resources for academics to engage in either formal or informal moderation processes. The level of knowledge of standards is, at best, uneven - but that does not warrant calls for central regulation or uniformity of processes. The drive for confidence in the integrity of standards must come from universities and the academics themselves. As self-accrediting institutions, Australian universities are rightly responsible for setting their own standards.
With new, diverse and rapidly changing fields of knowledge, tangible support is needed to encourage systematic efforts to articulate and monitor standards at the level of disciplines and subject areas. The newly established Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education is on the right track with commissioned studies of assessment practices and learning outcomes, but so far this is necessarily limited to a small number of disciplines.
The emphasis for change should be on developing bottom-up strategies of standards networks. Councils of deans and subject associations are an obvious starting point, but informal networks based on new areas of study can make a significant contribution if provided with appropriate recognition and resources.
Suggestions along these lines were made to the national review of higher education in 2002. They were considered timely then, and while not developed they should be revisited. It will take some work to implement change at this level, but given the imperative of maintaining Australia's worldwide reputation for quality and standards in undergraduate education, the alternative of doing nothing is unacceptable.
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