Thursday, October 11, 2007

Grade Inflation Or Claim Inflation

This piece has appeared in the Guardian today, and it is a very interesting study for anyone who likes to compare headlines with content.

The article by Polly Curtis presents the case that an "authoritative new study" presents "evidence of grade inflation" at Russell Group universities which will lead to "accusations of dumbing down" that haven't been levelled at these universities before.

This is all very exciting. Let's look at what's actually happened.

Mantz Yorke, who has been studying this area for some time and knows his stuff, has written a book (which was out in April). In it he presents some data on degrees awarded which shows that the number of 2:1s and Firsts awarded went up between 1994/5 and 2001/2.

So, the data is old.

In the article, Yorke is quoted as saying,
"My evidence suggests that people who attack colleges and new universities for softening or dumbing down are perhaps a little premature"
Which is not quite the same as accusing the Russell Group of grade inflation.

Later in the article, Curtis herself says,
As Yorke himself points out, rising grades do not necessarily indicate 'grade inflation'.
Before going on to explain why. In addition the allegation that this is all rather new will come as news to Tony Mooney, author of this piece from 2003 in the Guardian on, er, Mantz Yorke's research into grade inflation (using, er, the same data as in his book of this year), in which Yorke concludes,
...there is, on present data, little evidence that the percentage of good degrees has been inflated across any of the whole universities whose data have been analysed.

So, let's summarise. An eyecatching piece in the main paper and currently occupying a key spot on the much-visited Guardian website concerns a book that's been out for 6 months, analysing data that's now over 6 years old, that doesn't support the headline or opening paragraphs of the article and rehashes a 4 year old piece from the same newspaper anyway.

And yet, the effect will be, for casual readers, to give the impression that our degree system is deteriorating. It smacks of a journalist playing the age-old game of 'Let's You And Him Fight' justified by the publication, next week, of a review of qualification classifications.
There is a need for a proper, grown-up debate on degrees and their value, but this is not the opening sally into that arena, unfortunately. This isn't a case of educational grade inflation, just a case of journalistic claim inflation.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Careers Advice Is All Rubbish, Say All

Two important pieces of work out in the last few days, and they both have one thing in common - they criticise careers advice to science students.

The first is the leviathan Sainsbury Review of Government Science and Innovation Policy, as not reported particularly by a Press more concerned that they aren't going to get to play elections this autumn than with the long term viability of the UK as a science and technology innovator.

The second is the a much more specialist report from the Council for Science and Technology, which is reviewing how the situation for young researchers at university has improved since the Roberts Review finally told the world, in 2002, how badly our brightest young people were being treated.
Depressingly, the answer to 'how have things improved' is 'hardly at all'.

Anyway, both reports are authoritative, consult widely, and criticise careers advice and guidance without apparently speaking to anyone involved in producing or disseminating it in HE.

Indeed, neither report really even tries to summarise what is available. This is especially disappointing for the CST's report, because one thing that has definitely improved since Roberts is the standard and availability of careers information and guidance to young researchers. Many universities have dedicated, well-briefed advisers specifically for PhD graduates and postdocs. This is not reflected in the report.

The Sainsbury Review, meanwhile, calls for summaries of graduate populations to be published when most of the relevant data already exists and is available to the general public.

Careers advice is an easy - and fashionable - target. It is a shame that it does not appear that advisers, researchers, or bodies who deal with either at HE level did not get consulted (the Sainsbury Review did, at least, appear to consider Connexions before sticking the boot into HE)

More to come on these reports - hopefully a little more positive.

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