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What’s Wrong With Academia: Part 2

By: , Posted on: November 8, 2018

To continue the theme from my last post, what’s so wrong with giving engineering students what they want? They have to pay for their education nowadays, don’t they? Aren’t they customers? Don’t they deserve customer satisfaction?

Maybe they do, but what is it they want? Do they want to be happy now, or later? Do they want to be engineers? Do they want high exam and coursework marks? Do they want quality feedback on their work, or is their only interest in feedback to attempt to negotiate their marks upwards? Does their feedback on the course or lecturer reflect a considered opinion intended to help make the course and teaching better?  Or are they punishing those who work them harder than they like and / or give them lower marks than they like?

I suspect the second, and this has had a notable effect. 75% of engineering graduates now get a “good” degree (defined as the top two grades, upper second class or first class as we measure such things in the UK). These grades, which used to differentiate the top students from the also-rans, are now given to a significant proportion of the less than average, and of course average student quality has dropped in order to support the exponential expansion of courses.

Unless you believe that there is no such thing as grade inflation, and somehow 30-50% of eighteen year olds are now as smart as only 5% of them used to be? Whilst the professional engineering institutions are remaining mute on this, the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry aren’t buying it, even though they are extremely circumspect in their public utterances on the subject.

The graphic from a recent report on the matter reproduced above tells the tale. The number of first-class degrees has doubled twice since 1995, the second doubling happening during my time in academia over the last ten years.

Students now often think that they are buying the right to a “good degree”, rather than an education. There have been cases at places where I have worked where former students have threated legal action to increase their degree classification, with their cases being based on the idea that if students don’t get a first, the deficit must lie in the institution, rather than the student.

Now that almost all students get a 2:1 or a first, their concerns are understandable. It will be very hard for them to get a job with what used to be the standard passing grade (a “lower second-class” degree or 2:2 (aka a Bishop Desmond)), and they will have paid a UK university the better part of 40,000 pounds to attend an engineering degree course.

I find that very few students on many engineering courses nowadays care as much about what they are being taught as much as they care about the marks they receive. I find that many of them want to be spoon-fed answers. They have been taught by the education system to dislike learning, thinking for themselves, working in groups, uncertainty or ambiguity. They do not wish to take responsibility for their own learning, and bring no love of the subject with them. Their number one question is “Is this on the exam?”.

Although I am teaching more pragmatic knowledge, this is just as much an impediment for me as it is for my more theoretically-minded colleagues. Few of us want to go back to the era of the don who wrote scarcely decipherable equations on the blackboard whilst mumbling, ignoring any audience present for the full fifty minutes, but surely it has gone too far now?


Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

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