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Declining standards should not be ignored

By Peter Abelson - posted Friday, 2 December 2005

When the HES reported last month that I had resigned from my personal chair in economics at Macquarie University, vice-chancellor Di Yerbury took the opportunity to dismiss as "extremely, grossly inaccurate" comments I had earlier made about declining university standards. This is a response to Professor Yerbury's charges. Among my comments, reported in another newspaper, were the following factual observations:

  • Forty per cent of students fail the second year course that I teach. Some students have failed the course four to five times. At least one student has failed the course six times.
  • Foreign students who get a second-year entry to Macquarie after completing their first year with the Sydney Institute of Business and Technology - a private provider on campus - have a failure rate of 66 per cent.
  • The summer school has failure rates of 60 to 70per cent.
  • In response to the comments that standards at all levels, from high distinctions to passes, have fallen at another large university, I observed that "the same thing has happened at Macquarie University".

These comments were made in response to a telephone call from a reporter and relied on my memory. Nevertheless, they were essentially accurate.


Most of my comments were based on experience with a compulsory second-year course for economics undergraduates, taken five years ago by about 300 students, although numbers have fallen recently to just under 200.

In recent years the failure rates for this course were: 44 per cent in 2000, 38 per cent in 2001, 39per cent in 2002, 41 per cent in 2003 and 33per cent in 2004. The failure rate fell in 2004 because the entry prerequisites were tightened in order to improve the success rate. In the 1980s, failure rates in second-year courses were rarely higher than 15 per cent.

In 2004, two students were enrolled in the course for the sixth time, two for the fifth time, and two for the fourth time. (I erred in saying that someone had failed the course six times.)

Moreover, between 2000 and 2004, 11 per cent of students in these courses were awarded only a conceded pass grade (PC) by obtaining marks between 45 and 49. Thus, barely half the students obtained a genuine pass mark. Four university lecturers have examined on this course and there has been no significant variation between them.

Most direct entry second-year students enter via SIBT. In 2000, 57 per cent of the second-year entry students failed the course and a further 11 per cent obtained only a PC. In a parallel second year economics course with about 600 students, 61 per cent of second-year entry students failed and another 19 per cent obtained only a PC. Thus, only about one-third of these students obtained a genuine pass.

In the other year (2003) for which I have a record, 66 per cent of the SIBT entry students failed the course and a further 12 per cent obtained only a PC.


In 2003, the university introduced a summer vacation course for failures in this second year course. The failure rates in the summer course (on which I do not teach) have been 68 per cent in 2003, 47 per cent 2004 and 60 per cent in 2005. PCs have averaged 17 per cent.

When this summer course was introduced, I suggested that students with a course mark below 40 per cent in the subject (not 50 per cent, as quoted in the newspaper report) in the preceding semester should not be allowed to sit the summer course, because nearly all of these students would predictably fail again (as they did), and it was unfair to take their money in such circumstances. My proposal was turned down.

The high numbers of failures and conceded passes is evidence of declining standards. Students can progress into third-year courses with conceded passes and may graduate with unlimited conceded passes. Up to the early 1990s, it was customary to give only 2 per cent to 3 per cent conceded passes. Other students with less than 50 per cent marks would be failed.

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First published in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian on November 30, 2005. The full report referred to in this article is available here.

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About the Author

Peter Abelson is professor of economics at Macquarie University, which he leaves in January after more than 30 years on staff. He is secretary of the Economic Society of Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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