Are academic standards declining?

Another interesting observation, as a former university employee, is the declining academic standards upon the increase of alien [sic – he means international, not interplanetary] students.

Commenter ‘Baz’, 19 February

The claim that academic standards are in decline is always with us; only the cause varies (mass education, progressive education, managerialism, government funding cuts etc etc). But since academic standards are generally set internally by universities it is hard for outsiders to assess the credibilty of declinist claims.

My response to these allegations has been that while the absence of external standard-setting and scrutiny makes declining academic standards possible, proxy data hasn’t supported the declinist thesis. Employers are not, for example, showing their dissatisfaction by employing fewer graduates or giving them a lower premium for their degree (beyond the usual cyclical changes). And I have been observing for many years that pass rates are not showing any consistent upward trend.

However Baz’s comment prompted me to look at the latest data on ‘progress’ (ie pass) rates. The graph shows the percentage of units successfully completed by commencing domestic (blue line) and international (red line) students). It shows that the international student pass rate has since 2005 spiked up by 2.65 percentage points, while the domestic rate declined slightly.

Commencing students. Source: DEEWR

On closer examination, this change seems to be driven by largish increases (4% or more) at UTS, James Cook, Southern Queensland, Sunshine Coast, Curtin and South Australia. ANU, Victoria, and CQU had 3-4% increases. Southern Queensland went from a very low pass rate in 2005 (69.13%) to a slightly above average pass rate in 2005 (85.76%). However of these only Sunshine Coast’s pass rate (91.6%) is way out of line with what what I would expect.

For some universities, increases to English language requirements may explain a rapid increase as more students arrive with one of the basic conditions of academic success. But any significant departure from historical patterns warrants further investigation.

10 thoughts on “Are academic standards declining?

  1. The USA immigration hall in years gone by is the only place I have seen foreigners referred to as aliens, making Baz a very strange fellow.


  2. I wouldn’t even use the word “requirement”, since it sounds like many students that are coming don’t speak English as their native language. This isn’t true of most Indians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Americans etc. that come, and some of the Northern Europeans probably write English better than many Australians in some courses.


  3. Conrad – I think it is the right word, as it is the one used by universities (including where you work) in setting out the conditions of admission. While some international students do have excellent English, if they don’t come from English-speaking countries or haven’t completed their schooling in an English-speaking country they usually need to demonstrate their English proficiency.

    While on a quick Google search I could not find any research showing how these requirements have changed over the years, my recollection is that many universities have lifted these requirements in recent years due to too many students struggling because of language problems. Apart from soft marking, this seems like the most obvious explanation as to why first year students in one year could improve significantly on first years in the previous year.


  4. I think departments within many universities are allowed to set their own requirements that are higher than the minimum levels universities set, so it’s quite complicated (even within courses — where I work, we have different levels for undergraduate and masters courses, which seems fair to me because the expectation and competition is different).
    Also, one reason I mentioned that there are many English speaking OS students is that it would be handy if you could break your table down into “English native” vs “other” because some of the increase may simply be attributable to the recent increase in students from places that speak English as their native language.
    I would also think that, tests aside (which I find don’t have thrilling validity in any case — the IELTS, for example, is poor at telling you some things that you really want to know, like whether a student’s academic writing is going to be fine), the English level amongst other places that many of the students come from (like China) has increased a lot in the last decade. Thus, universities may have done done nothing, but still would have seen an increase in English standards.


  5. Hey Andrew,

    Have you seen any research that tries to pin down how much of the graduate wage premium is due to actual gains in productivity achieved while studying, as opposed to the signalling benefits of having a degree or university entrants being smarter and more diligent than the general population to begin with?



  6. Wow, did i get bona fide posting A. Norton following a few comments. That’s awesome, although the c-rad might be jealous (just kidding mate).

    Na, awesome post. To be honest, i should have toned it down. The ole ‘aliens’ aren’t too bad. I roomed with two for a while. They weren’t that smart, had poor communications, but god did they put their heart into their work. And good people too. I’m a gig fan of the ‘enlightenment’ period and these guys embody that spirit.

    Perhaps I was alse trying to stir the pot and was over the top on the state of our unis. But at the same token, there’s some real issues there. I saw with my own eyes, a lecturer asking us to not fail to many as we will come in for attention from above.

    I can’t see why uni administrators can’t see the damage that they’re doing to their ‘brands’. Tke the CFA program. The failure rate averages 70%, 60% and 50% for the three levels. And that is not including the 25% who don’t show to the examinations. Yet, the CFA grows in popularity every year. Interesting!

    The other issue I have with the uni system is that aliens (ok sorry, international students) can pay to study here (full fee paying) but local students can’t. Why should this be the case. It makes no sense!


  7. “I can’t see why uni administrators can’t see the damage that they’re doing to their ‘brands’.”

    Which is obviously why 2010 had the most enrollments ever.


  8. Baz – Professional bodies have an incentive to keep workforce numbers down and their members’ income up; high failure rates will also be accepted by would-be members who want that high income. Corrupt practices aside, universities have no such incentive.

    Conrad – On the other hand, there are very different brand premiums built into the fees charged by different unis. However whether these premiums are associated with real quality differences is another matter.


  9. Some of the differences are also not attributable to brands or markets. There are certainly courses where universities could charge twice as much as they do, but they don’t (most postgraduate courses that get you onto the medicare system, for example). It’s not clear to me why.


  10. There is ‘public interest’/charity pricing for some domestic full-fee students, but not much for internationals in my observation.

    However I have found examining prices for p/g courses to be fairly difficult, because ‘Masters’ can mean quite different things.


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