Author Topic: Article: The great university con: how the British degree lost its value  (Read 2274 times)

PDXTabs

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GuitarStv

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Pretty depressing: The great university con: how the British degree lost its value.

I was doing a data structures and algorithms course with 140 other students.  The course consisted of a several projects that amounted to 40% of your final mark, and a 60% written final exam.  I has an 80% average going into the final exam, and studied pretty hard for it.  I was able to 45% of the questions on the final exam.

So, if I answered every question completed on the exam perfectly I should have squeaked by with 59%.  Except there's no way I answered every question perfectly.  I was pretty much in tears walking out of the exam room, sure that I'd have to retake the course.  Final grade in received was 75%.  Apparently the year before, the final exam was too easy and the bell curve was used to drag students down rather than up.

Bell curving has always been pretty common in university.  Sometimes the professors just fuck up and make their exams too hard/easy.  Then they realize that they've failed most of the class, or the average mark in in the 90%.  A given class of 100 students is going to have a similar percentage of super geniuses and duds

I also had many courses where the final exam was worth 70% or more of your mark for the course.  Gaming the system becomes really common in these scenarios.  In some courses it made more sense to skip all the classes for the whole year, then spend three solid weeks before an exam cramming and studying past exams.  I believe that there are fundamental problems with how we assess knowledge in university that drive this issue . . . but don't believe that it's a new thing that universities are facing.

PDXTabs

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I believe that there are fundamental problems with how we assess knowledge in university that drive this issue . . . but don't believe that it's a new thing that universities are facing.

So you don't see anything fishy at Oxford or Cambridge in the attached graph, keeping in mind that while this is happening academic professionals are complaining about lax standards?
« Last Edit: August 30, 2019, 09:28:32 AM by PDXTabs »

GuitarStv

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Maybe, maybe not.  It brings up a lot of questions to answer though.

Are the same courses being offered at the colleges from the 1960s to 2019?  (I'd expect fewer people to get higher grades in say, law than I would in sculpture for example.)  Were marking schemes kept strictly to a bell curve before, and have they now been freed from it?  Is the average education of students entering school better than it was in the '60s?  Is modern technology allowing students to better game the crappy system of grading that has been in place for such a long time in universities?

PDXTabs

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Is the average education of students entering school better than it was in the '60s?

I feel like you didn't read the article.

If it were true, and the proportion of exceptional students had really quadrupled since 1994, the generations coming through would be a demographic phenomenon. One would expect to see their brilliance in the data, from literacy and numeracy levels to productivity. The media would be rife with articles on displaced workers in their forties and fifties, pushed aside to make way for the “genius generation”. Millennials would deserve a quite different moniker: magnificents, perhaps.

These are not the terms being used to describe today’s young graduates. And their supposed brilliance can be found in no set of official statistics. Employment rates among young adults are unimpressive. British productivity has been stagnant for the past decade, and the graduate premium is weaker than ever. Most tellingly, in 2016, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studied basic skill levels among recent graduates from 23 countries, England ranked in the bottom third.

According to their study, one in five graduates in England could not handle literacy tasks more complicated than understanding the instructions on a packet of aspirin, while the numeracy level of 28 per cent was limited to estimating the fuel left on a petrol gauge. These rates were around three times worse than the top eight countries, which spend around $19,000 per student. England spends $26,000 per student, more than any country except the US, which spends $30,000.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2019, 09:57:16 AM by PDXTabs »

GuitarStv

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That's a good example of the lack of information in the article presented.  It's complaining about literacy rates for example.  OK.  Let's look at that complaint.

What exactly was the more complicated task than reading instructions on a packet of aspirin that was being administered?  Interpreting Chaucer?  I know a great many graduates of the sciences who would have trouble with that sort of task . . . but are brilliant in their own fields, and would be the first to tell you that they owe a great debt to their education.  There exist many more highly specialized fields today than ever before in the past.

What level of literacy do you believe should be required from a university graduate?  Should otherwise brilliant students who have little interest or ability in language study be barred from graduating and going on to pursue careers in the tech fields where they're eminently capable?

Now, if you want to argue that money could be more efficiently spent per student . . . I suspect that this is true.  There's a lot of waste and misuse of funds in educational systems.  I certainly saw a lot of it at the Canadian university that I attended.



As an aside, i'm in charge of hiring co-op students for my work.  I'd say that the kids I hire tend to do as well or better than many of the much older workers we've got.  So, YMMV.

cerat0n1a

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Are the same courses being offered at the colleges from the 1960s to 2019?  (I'd expect fewer people to get higher grades in say, law than I would in sculpture for example.)  Were marking schemes kept strictly to a bell curve before, and have they now been freed from it?  Is the average education of students entering school better than it was in the '60s?  Is modern technology allowing students to better game the crappy system of grading that has been in place for such a long time in universities?

We didn't have bell curve marking schemes in British universities in the past (and in theory, we don't now either.)

British universities have made the transition to being largely commercial organisations which (in their teaching rather than research capacity), try to serve their customers (students) by giving them what they want - a degree with a high grade. Any department or university which bucks the trend will inevitably suffer through the market response. They are all chasing a pool of 18-year old customers which is diminishing in size and those universities which have 30-50% of their intake coming from outside the UK are perhaps going to suffer from Brexit too. I'd still put a British Bachelors degree about on a par with an American Masters degree though. My experience of hiring interns and graduates over the last couple of decades is that there are still a lot of extremely impressive, very hard-working smart, knowledgeable people coming out of university.

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One thing that the article doesn't mention is that many graduate employment schemes from public companies and the civil service require a First or 2:1, which means that if you get a 2:2 or lower you are shut out of much of the traditional graduate employment market.   This started in the 1990s when there was both a big expansion in higher education and more difficult employment conditions, and employers needed some way to keep the numbers of graduate applicants down to manageable levels.  I used to do some recruitment for graduate civil service schemes and saw this first hand.

Naturally once employers started looking for a 2:1 minimum both students and universities then started to think that a 2:1 was the floor of what they needed and expected to get.  So certainly part of the problem is within the universities themselves but a significant part of it is also this outside pressure.


flipboard

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So you don't see anything fishy at Oxford or Cambridge in the attached graph, keeping in mind that while this is happening academic professionals are complaining about lax standards?
Once you take into account population growth, there's nothing fishy about Oxbridge results.

The population of the UK, and hence the number of children, and hence the number of people applying to Oxbridge, is growing (same with the rest of the worlds population, from where many people also apply. The number of places to study there is barely growing, and growth if any is certainly in no way proportional to growth of world population. Distribution of intelligence within that population is probably similar to what it used to be in the past.

Hence over the years there is a larger selection of people with a given intelligence, and/or the growing availability of more intelligent people pushes out the less intelligent people. The University simply picks the best of those available, but in combination with demographics that would lead to an increase in the average intelligence of each years cohort.

Of course for universities that grow their student intake this wouldn't be the case. But for the top 2 universities in the UK (if not the world - depending on whose ranking you use, depending on how you weight waht factor), who admit a near constant number of students, it's entirely expected for grades to improve as world population grows.

cerat0n1a

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The population of the UK, and hence the number of children, and hence the number of people applying to Oxbridge, is growing (same with the rest of the worlds population, from where many people also apply. The number of places to study there is barely growing, and growth if any is certainly in no way proportional to growth of world population.

Not really the case. The number of 18-year olds has been falling in the UK for some years, and continues to fall until 2025 or so, when the children of recent EU migrants starts to feed into the numbers and there's a sharp uptick. This demographic dip is one of the reasons why universities are competing so sharply and some are likely to be in financial trouble. There's a reducing supply of customers and all universities have expanded significantly over the last two decades, with many new entrants to the market. Oxbridge does of course take plenty of people from outside the UK, but mainly from other first-world countries which have an even sharper fall in the number of 18-year olds. The number of Oxbridge places has grown somewhat, albeit not as fast as other universities (the sector has increased by a factor of greater than x5 since the 1990s).

WhiteTrashCash

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Britain can always try focusing on the demographic of American Anglophile students who love "Doctor Who" and "Sherlock" and think British accents are cute. That will keep the money flowing.

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The population of the UK, and hence the number of children, and hence the number of people applying to Oxbridge, is growing (same with the rest of the worlds population, from where many people also apply. The number of places to study there is barely growing, and growth if any is certainly in no way proportional to growth of world population.

Not really the case. The number of 18-year olds has been falling in the UK for some years, and continues to fall until 2025 or so, when the children of recent EU migrants starts to feed into the numbers and there's a sharp uptick. This demographic dip is one of the reasons why universities are competing so sharply and some are likely to be in financial trouble. There's a reducing supply of customers and all universities have expanded significantly over the last two decades, with many new entrants to the market. Oxbridge does of course take plenty of people from outside the UK, but mainly from other first-world countries which have an even sharper fall in the number of 18-year olds. The number of Oxbridge places has grown somewhat, albeit not as fast as other universities (the sector has increased by a factor of greater than x5 since the 1990s).
There is indeed a drop, but the start of the  drop coincides with people who will graduate this year (especially when taking into account gap yaahs). It has virtually no relevance for intake numbers.

EU expansion expanded the pool significantly during the 00s (EU students have preferential treatment relative to other international, which would increase applications). Oh, and the number of international students studying in the UK has also been growing:
https://www.studying-in-uk.org/international-student-statistics-in-uk/

[Of course you'd also hope that the teaching gets better with time.]

PDXTabs

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One thing that the article doesn't mention is that many graduate employment schemes from public companies and the civil service require a First or 2:1, which means that if you get a 2:2 or lower you are shut out of much of the traditional graduate employment market....

I have (personally) noticed this. As a slight aside, do any British mustachians know what will happen if I try to apply to British grad school with my US degree?

cerat0n1a

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Britain can always try focusing on the demographic of American Anglophile students who love "Doctor Who" and "Sherlock" and think British accents are cute. That will keep the money flowing.

It ain't cheap for US students to come, so it tends to be Asia that provides most of that demographic. When foreign visitors with kids come to stay with us, it tends to be Harry Potter stuff they want to see (quite a few university locations used in filming, obviously.)

cerat0n1a

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I have (personally) noticed this. As a slight aside, do any British mustachians know what will happen if I try to apply to British grad school with my US degree?

Depends on where you apply and what course. Oxford or Cambridge or a few other prestige institutions (LSE, Imperial etc.) on a world-renowned course, are very competitive. Most other places tend to operate on the "whoever can pay, gets in" approach.

"Grad school" isn't really a thing though, although a few universities have recently adopted the term, copying it from the US. We have taught, 1-years Masters degrees which tend to be a specialisation on top of on existing Bachelors degree, and we have PhDs, which are 3-4 years culminating in producing a thesis which is a piece of original research under the supervision of an academic.  There isn't much of a taught component to a PhD in most places - there's typically a period at the start learning how things work and doing supervised projects before embarking on more independent research.

The wikipedia description is pretty accurate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graduate_school#United_Kingdom

PDXTabs

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"Grad school" isn't really a thing though, although a few universities have recently adopted the term, copying it from the US. We have taught, 1-years Masters degrees which tend to be a specialisation on top of on existing Bachelors degree, and we have PhDs, which are 3-4 years culminating in producing a thesis which is a piece of original research under the supervision of an academic.  There isn't much of a taught component to a PhD in most places - there's typically a period at the start learning how things work and doing supervised projects before embarking on more independent research.

Yes, sometimes I check out Scottish PhD programs, as I have family and citizenship, but all my education and work experience is on the west coast of the USA.

In the states "grad school" is just a catch all term for any masters or doctoral program. We have both course work only masters and course work plus research masters (usually ~1.5 years in both cases in my experience) . A PhD in the states in my experience is ~1.5 years of course work followed by at least three years of pure research, my wife was one of the first out of her program after five years. Spending 10 years to get a PhD in the states is not unheard of. We also have some doctoral programs that are not PhDs, like JD, PsyD, PharmD, etc.

Chraurelius

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Re: Article: The great university con: how the British degree lost its value
« Reply #16 on: September 01, 2019, 08:53:08 AM »
Naturally, grade inflation exists, but one thing nobody mentioned is that getting an honors degree is now a goal for a lot more people.  Before, the honors degree was only needed if you wanted the academic life.  Now that you can get a better job with one, students study like crazy for the exam, and there are more good honors degrees.

It's like getting into a top college in the US.  In my day, top grades and test scores were all you needed.  Now you need fabulous grades, perfect SATs, volunteer work, quirky interests, and a heartrending personal essay.  You have to work harder.

scottish

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Re: Article: The great university con: how the British degree lost its value
« Reply #17 on: September 01, 2019, 02:24:15 PM »
A counter anecdote.

I've seen grade inflation in the admission requirements for engineering/CS programs at the University of Waterloo, in particular.    The programs are so competitive that the universities are setting a cutoff at a very high grade 12 mark, such as 95%.

I find it hard to believe there's a difference in ability between a 94% student and a 96% student.   Except maybe in their ability to complain to their teachers that they need just 1 more percent on their mark.

I'd rather see a reduction in the quota for foreign students to make more room for our best and brightest.

The co-op students (interns in the US) that we've hired from Waterloo have been very capable.   The university seems to be churning out smart, well educated kids who know how to get stuff done.

On the down side, these people are in such demand that companies in the US are willing to pay them salaries that Canadian companies can't or won't match, so we see many of them emigrating.


PDXTabs

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Re: Article: The great university con: how the British degree lost its value
« Reply #18 on: September 01, 2019, 04:17:08 PM »
On the down side, these people are in such demand that companies in the US are willing to pay them salaries that Canadian companies can't or won't match, so we see many of them emigrating.

Right?! I'd love to be in either Canada or Scotland right now, but realistically it would mean a 50% pay cut for me. I don't really understand how software salaries can be so much higher in the USA, but at the moment it is good for my retirement account.