Monday, 23 June 2008

Academic standards: the shame of our lap-dancing universities

Overstretched and underfunded, they vie for media attention and quality loses out

Libby Purves

Let's be clear: what follows is only journalism. There will be no lies, nor crazy guesses or twisted evidence, but all the same it is daily journalism. You can take it or leave it, contradict it flatly or use it as a springboard for other thoughts: it is not an academic treatise based on lengthy research. There isn't room on the page, or in your morning.

This is a useful distinction to keep in mind when studying recent straws in the wind, for academic rigour and academic integrity are under fire as never before before in any free and uncensored society. Commercial pressures and media vanity are eroding the serene old castle and a new generation risks failing to understand what scholarship is.

I understood it once, which is why I gave it up in favour of a lesser - but more amusing - career as a mere interpreter and communicator of daily events and the results of real scholarship. Contemplating an academic career after university, I quailed at the solitary, low-paid scrupulousness, the thickets of multiple footnotes, silent hours in lonely libraries and scratchy disputatiousness. I understood that while scholarship is a marvellous thing, I was not fit for it. Better to hop around under the table like a sparrow picking up interesting crumbs, sometimes trying to help proper experts put their theses to a wider public. But I have always known that the scholar's world is not journalism.

The world has rolled on. Universities, underfunded and overstretched, feel forced to offer alluring lap dances to the media to buff up their images. Never a day passes without some piffling press release about researchers at the University of Much-Binding having “shown” that men are different from women, or that nobody likes being burgled, or that raspberries might cure criminality. These miniature nonsenses exist to massage research funding, get Binding University's name into the papers, and get the authors on to every desperate programme and magazine page to elucidate the raspberry-and-burglars theory in three minutes or 800 words.

The trouble is that if the academic becomes a star, the pressure can dent his or her scruples. Take the case of Raj Persaud, the Mr Glib of media shrinks, at present suspended for three months by the General Medical Council for some pretty shameless plagiarism of other academics' work. He pleaded that he was in a “confused mental state” at the time of knocking off these particular works, because of the “pressure” of juggling media commitments and NHS psychiatric practice.

He had become powerful in media terms and as he once wrote himself, in one of those annoying media-shrink pieces about the character flaws of public figures they have never met: “People with elevated power become disposed to elevated levels of risk-taking. They are more mentally oriented to potential rewards and oblivious to pitfalls.”

As was he. You cannot help but be sorry for him, since by all accounts he is a good doctor and nice chap. But all the same, the GMC does us a favour by pointing out that academics should work to higher standards than hasty hacks.

Meanwhile, inside the fortress walls of academe, things are not too secure. When student fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant began in 1997, I remember consoling myself with the reflection that students would become more demanding, and would balk at having lecture rooms without enough seats, or only one hour per fortnight of small-group teaching. They would become customers rather than overgrown schoolchildren.

I was right and wrong. Right, because that feeling has grown. Wrong, because its ill-effects are threatening the passionless integrity of scholarly standards.

One by one, academics blow the whistle. They have pointed out the pressure to give first or 2:1 degrees rather than 2:2s, caused not only by anxiety over their reputation but by the litigiousness of customer-students (”Every summer is poisoned by appeals,” one says). Next we get reports that higher degrees are being awarded to lucrative overseas students who speak almost no English: the four billion a year that they bring in tempts some institutions to undue leniency .

Universities UK denies this, but reading message boards from irritable academics, confirms the impression. One in Leeds claims to have turned down an underqualified foreigner and his £8,000 because “I neither have the time nor the will to have some hapless person trying to work in my laboratory without the necessary scientific education and I got a lot of flak for that, but many do...

“The result is an utter dumbing down of the PhD standards. While PhDs at from the major UK universities may be worth something, many at ‘minor' universities are not worth anything. This is well known in the scientific world. A US-American from a good university has to work between four and seven years on his PhD and publish several papers, whereas in the UK some rich person can get the title by paying the fees and working for three years on a mickey-mouse project. Often the theses are written by the supervisors and the vivas are conducted by ‘buddies'. It is a complete disgrace.”

Others say that plagiarism from the internet is increasingly ignored for fear of argument, and that the ethnicity of (lucrative!) students may make copying acceptable. One academic journal mused innocently: “The cultural values of multilingual students are sometimes at variance with Western academic practice, in matters such as plagiarism... we should respect and make use of the students' own traditions of study.”

And on a less scholarly but equally telling matter, at Kingston University staff were recorded telling students to inflate their responses in the annual National Student Survey because “if Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you”.

These disparate incidents and reports hang together worryingly. They link also to the “dodgy dossier” on the Iraq weapons, the one praised by ministers but which turned out to be mainly plagiarised - typographical errors and all - from a postgraduate thesis. Scholarship mattered little next to political advantage; the same applies often enough to “research” used to cobble up hasty government policymaking and propaganda (check out the wonderful vagueness, for instance, of the “five-a-day” campaigns).

I have no space for footnotes and full attributions. This has been journalism. But journalists have to pick up threads, tug them and see what unravels. And in this hurried, mercenary, media-driven age I do sense an unravelling of academic rigour.

Perhaps it is just beginning. Perhaps a stitch in time will stop it.

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