Pro-vice-chancellorian bollocks

Once upon a very long time ago, I spent a year or more of my life doing nothing else much but mathematics problems, preparing for the then entrance scholarship to get into Trinity to do maths. The standard was fairly stratospheric, and it was quite difficult to find enough practice questions on e.g. projective geometry. But one source was selected questions from various university examinations. Yes, degree-level questions from elsewhere being used as Cambridge entrance paper practice … which rather undermined any belief I might have had in the myth of close equality of level of enterprise across different universities.

Well, things have no doubt changed in all sorts of ways since those distant days. But one thing remains the same. As almost everyone knows perfectly well, there are wide differences between what is intellectually required to get (say) an upper second-class degree in a particular subject at different UK universities.

But there are always those concerned to deny the obvious. Thus, in the correspondence column of the Guardian today, the Pro-vice-chancellor of London South Bank University writes

All universities work to a common understanding of degree classification (supported by an external examiner system which is common to all).

And another correspondent writes

There is, in fact, close equivalence of degree-level standards across institutions. It is effectively maintained through the Quality Assurance Agency, which asserts that the standard “should be at a similar level across the UK”. The much-admired external examiner system is a major feature of this.

Which is all, of course, complete bollocks.

For a start, external examiners are very largely swapped between universities at similar levels in the pecking order. I bet, for example, that London South Bank University rarely uses examiners from Cambridge, or vice versa. And moreover, even when you do act as an external examiner for another university, your main job is to certify that the examining board there is behaving properly in following its own rules, and is behaving in a transparent and principled way. You might hope, where appropriate, for some rough comparabilities — but only pretty rough. And rough comparability is patently not transitive. Standards at A might be roughly comparable with standards at B, and standards at B might be roughly comparable with standards at C, and so on down the chain. But standards at A may of course be in a different ballpark to standards at Z.

And so they certainly ought to be. For example, here in Cambridge we spend a great deal of effort in trying to recruit the brightest and best; we then give them maybe seventy hours or more one-to-one ‘supervisions’ (i.e. tutorials) in philosophy over three years, not to mention all sorts of other formal and informal small group teaching on top of lectures — a quantity and quality of provision that most universities can only dream about. It would simply be a scandal if our students by the end weren’t in general performing at a level a good few notches above what it is reasonable to expect in many other places. And what we demand of them in Tripos quite rightly reflects that. That “close equivalence of degree-level standards” remains a myth.

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