This month, thousands of Australian students will celebrate entry to
university and the start of their tertiary studies. At the same time,
politicians and VCs will congratulate themselves on increased
participation rates and Australia's success at becoming the 'knowledge'
In an increasingly competitive world, where future prosperity relies on
'smart' industries and technology, the reality is that it will be those
countries with the strongest tertiary sector that achieve success.
Unfortunately though, there is mounting evidence that our universities
and colleges fail the 'standards' test. Instead of developing academic
excellence and high-quality education, many of our tertiary courses
promote a 'dumbed down' and mediocre level of ability.
Evidence of falling standards can be found in the recently released
in Academic Work prepared for the federal Department of Education
and Science. The report presents the results of a national survey of some
2000 academics and addresses issues such as the quality of first-year
students and the quality of degrees being granted.
The first thing to note about the report is that, notwithstanding the
fact that all tertiary institutions pride themselves as being
intellectually rigorous, "there was no VC or dean who had any valid
or reliable means of knowing about the intellectual standards of their
university's degrees …".
Worse still, 54 per cent of academics completing the questionnaire felt
that the standards required to gain a degree have been 'dumbed down' and
40 per cent "reported an increase in the award of higher grades"
as many succumbed to the pressure to lower standards "so that fewer
Especially with overseas students, the mantra from those in charge of
our universities is more 'bums' on seats to guarantee increased funding
and revenue, instead of maintaining rigorous intellectual standards.
As the report notes, the tertiary sector alone cannot be blamed for
falling standards. Equally to blame is a secondary-school system that
fails to properly equip students for tertiary study.
As noted in the report, when academics were
asked about whether standards had declined
over time, "almost half said standards
of incoming students had declined".
Lower levels of student ability explain
why so many university departments, in
particular in maths and science, have
had to rewrite first-year courses to make
Further evidence of falling standards is the increasing number of
first-year students requiring 'remedial courses' in English and maths.
Even after six years of secondary school, the sad reality is that
increasing numbers of students cannot write a properly structured,
grammatically correct essay or undertake basic computational tasks.
The result? As noted by the academics interviewed in the above-named
report, "The less able students, and those with inadequate skills in
English or other basic skills, are very demanding of time".
Added to the problem of academics having to waste valuable time
teaching the 'basics' is the financial cost of meeting the needs
of under-performing students. While Australian research into the
problem of remedial courses is almost non-existent, American research
proves how significant the problem can be.
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