Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

How mass education is lowering the standard of our universities

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 22 January 2003

This month, thousands of Australian students will celebrate entry to university and the start of their tertiary studies. At the same time, politicians and VCs will congratulate themselves on increased participation rates and Australia's success at becoming the 'knowledge' nation.

In an increasingly competitive world, where future prosperity relies on 'smart' industries and technology, the reality is that it will be those countries with the strongest tertiary sector that achieve success.

Unfortunately though, there is mounting evidence that our universities and colleges fail the 'standards' test. Instead of developing academic excellence and high-quality education, many of our tertiary courses promote a 'dumbed down' and mediocre level of ability.


Evidence of falling standards can be found in the recently released report, Changes in Academic Work prepared for the federal Department of Education and Science. The report presents the results of a national survey of some 2000 academics and addresses issues such as the quality of first-year students and the quality of degrees being granted.

The first thing to note about the report is that, notwithstanding the fact that all tertiary institutions pride themselves as being intellectually rigorous, "there was no VC or dean who had any valid or reliable means of knowing about the intellectual standards of their university's degrees …".

Worse still, 54 per cent of academics completing the questionnaire felt that the standards required to gain a degree have been 'dumbed down' and 40 per cent "reported an increase in the award of higher grades" as many succumbed to the pressure to lower standards "so that fewer students failed".

Especially with overseas students, the mantra from those in charge of our universities is more 'bums' on seats to guarantee increased funding and revenue, instead of maintaining rigorous intellectual standards.

As the report notes, the tertiary sector alone cannot be blamed for falling standards. Equally to blame is a secondary-school system that fails to properly equip students for tertiary study.

As noted in the report, when academics were asked about whether standards had declined over time, "almost half said standards of incoming students had declined". Lower levels of student ability explain why so many university departments, in particular in maths and science, have had to rewrite first-year courses to make them easier.


Further evidence of falling standards is the increasing number of first-year students requiring 'remedial courses' in English and maths. Even after six years of secondary school, the sad reality is that increasing numbers of students cannot write a properly structured, grammatically correct essay or undertake basic computational tasks.

The result? As noted by the academics interviewed in the above-named report, "The less able students, and those with inadequate skills in English or other basic skills, are very demanding of time".

Added to the problem of academics having to waste valuable time teaching the 'basics' is the financial cost of meeting the needs of under-performing students. While Australian research into the problem of remedial courses is almost non-existent, American research proves how significant the problem can be.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 15 January, 2003.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Kevin Donnelly
Related Links
Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee
Department of Education, Science and Training
Photo of Kevin Donnelly
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy