Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Phil Willis and whistleblowing on higher education standards

Last November I questioned Phil Willis's approach, as chairman of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills select committee, to its inquiry into claims that standards in higher education are falling. He called on critics of government policy to "put up or shut up" and challenged them "to come out from the woodwork".

A report in the Times Higher Education supplement suggests that he should have been more concerned for the welfare of the witnesses he called:
An academic at loggerheads with Manchester Metropolitan University after he blew the whistle on alleged grade inflation at the institution has claimed that he was scapegoated by being kicked off its academic board.
Walter Cairns was ejected from the board following a vote of no-confidence instigated by John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Met.
The move was made in the aftermath of Mr Cairns' submission to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee inquiry into higher education standards. It concerned a course he taught in which marks were bumped up across the board following an 85 per cent failure rate.
Mr Cairns told the panel of MPs that the changes had been made without his consent and despite an initial indication from the external examiner that his marking was appropriate.
As I said in November, it was hard to see why Phil was being so bullish in favour of Labour government policy. I asked:
Surely the role of a select committee chairman is to be impartial and to put those giving evidence at their ease?
It seems that Laurie Taylor's satirical column about the University of Poppleton. which also runs in the Times Higher Ed, was pretty much on the money:
Dumbing down
Janet Fluellen, our Director of Curriculum Development, has enthusiastically welcomed the news that a cross-party panel of MPs has asked academics to submit evidence of dumbing down in universities.
"We are so committed to this exercise," she told The Poppletonian, "that we have constituted a high-powered dumbing-down committee (myself and the vice-chancellor). Any Poppleton academic with evidence of slipping or falling standards should submit their claim to this committee together with their name, age, departmental affiliation, number of years in service, a recent passport-size photograph, a P45 and a small DNA sample."

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