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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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    Inside Out - South: Monday October 31, 2005

University Course Standards

Student with degree
Graduating with good grades - but how high are standards?

Inside Out South presents a special 30 minute programme investigating universities and academic course standards.

An undercover BBC investigation is set to reveal how university lecturers can feel pressurised to pass poor quality work.

BBC South's Inside Out programme (Monday, October 31, BBC One South) contains secretly filmed footage of a senior academic stating that she operates a "positive pass policy".

Dr Karen Randell, who runs the Film Studies Degree at Southampton Solent University, also admits that 25% of her students should not be at university.

She says: "We are kind of remedial teachers at some level. These people have been failures all their lives. That is why we hold back. Why we don't automatically say it's failed.

"We have to really make a big decision that it's failed. I am not saying we are not going to fail some of yours. But it is not the first thing that we think of.

"Even though you can see this is absolutely rubbish, you have to look at the wider picture."

In the secretly filmed footage, Dr Randell also explains how she gets "challenged from the top" if she fails students. "It's all about business.

"t's got nothing to do with education or pedagogy or anything. This is the cynical real world of higher education."

The BBC put its allegations to the university a month ago and provided the transcripts of key extracts from its footage.

The university declined to be interviewed for the programme, but did issue a statement, detailed below.

Inside Out showed anonymous copies of some of the student essays to academics. They confirmed that work of a similar quality is being passed at other universities.

The programme also includes secretly filmed footage of a marking meeting for the Film Studies course, where a senior lecturer passes student essays that she describes as "crap" and "illiterate".

Jennifer Toynbee-Holmes admits that grades are inflated to fit in with the system. She says: "If we didn't care about how many students we had and how many dropped out, we would mark very differently.

If we were really marking according to what we felt, we would drop a grade for everybody I would say." Jennifer Toynbee-Holmes is also filmed putting pressure on a colleague to pass an essay that both of them think has been plagiarised.

As well as writing essays, the first year students on the 16mm Film Production unit were also asked to make a film.

The film was supposed to be two to four minutes long, but one group of students passed even though their film was just one minute long.

Students waving degrees
Are University courses always up to scratch?

Inside Out presenter Chris Packham says that the programme raises serious questions about the Government's expansion of higher education.

"Universities up and down the country are now accepting a much wider range of students. Some of them don't appear to have the academic skills they need for a degree course," he says.

Nobody from the Government was available to be interviewed for the programme, but the Department for Education said in a statement, "Despite massive expansion of student numbers over the last decade, the financial returns to Higher Education have remained strong.

"It is right that we try to get more money into our universities to fund expansion - all talented young people, whatever their background, should have the chance to engage in good quality higher education.

"For many, especially those from poorer backgrounds, it can be a life-changing opportunity, and the best route to a secure future."

The programme makers showed their secret filming to Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools who is now a professor at the University of Buckingham, who said he was staggered by the footage.

"I think this film is immensely important because it is the first time that someone has exposed the conversations that go on in these examination meetings.

"It shows what a nonsense higher education is now. It's a vast waste of taxpayers' money. I just feel for young people, who are wasting three years of their lives, who are ending up with a degree which won't have any intellectual meaning and which won't have any currency in the workplace."

Written statement from Southampton Solent University

"We chose not to be interviewed for Inside Out because we believe the programme and the way it was made falls so far short of the expected BBC standards of accuracy and openness that there was no possibility of a fair hearing, let alone establishing the truth.

"In spite of repeated requests we have not been shown the material on which the allegations are based.

"In the very short time that we have been given we have had the matter investigated. We have found no evidence to support the allegations. We are certain that the comments of dedicated and conscientious staff have been grossly misrepresented.

"Our staff completely reject the interpretation placed upon the selective excerpts taken from conversations that were secretly filmed without their knowledge or consent.

"They feel intruded upon, angry and deceived by someone they believed was just an inexperienced colleague whom they were attempting to support.

"We are proud of our staff and our students. We remain confident about our standards. But we question those of Inside Out."

See also ...

Inside Out: South
Generation gap

On the rest of Inside Out
Students

On bbc.co.uk
bbc.co.uk/learning

On the rest of the web
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Department for Education and Skills
Universities UK
Association of University Teachers

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