It’s high time for self-important individuals like David Starkey to either back up their claims or retract them (reference to "Taking the mick" article, published in G2 on January 15th). Starkey has hinted that degrees offered at London Metropolitan University are subpar when compared to those offered at Cambridge University. But what is the basis of his argument and what evidence supports his claims? It’s worth noting that London Met has yet to grant any degrees, having only formed after a merger in August 2002.
Is Starkey referring to all degrees, or are there specific courses he thinks lack quality? Does this apply to degrees like law, which must fulfil specific professional criteria regardless of where they’re taught?
As an external examiner for four universities (two pre-1992 and two post-1992) and a specialist subject reviewer for the Higher Education Funding Council for England in two areas (Middle Eastern and African studies, 1996-99, and politics, 2000), I have had the opportunity to view the work produced by students in many different universities (both pre- and post-1992), review degree course syllabi, and assess teaching methods. My conclusion is that degrees are fairly similar across institutions, and standards are generally maintained via the external examiner system. Does Starkey possess comparable experience that would support his claims?
Certainly, there are so-called "Mickey Mouse degrees," and it’s disappointing to hear vice-chancellors and others deny their existence. Dubious degrees can be divided into two types: the first is candid but may be based on a subject that doesn’t require three years to learn. The second, more problematic type involves fraudulent degrees like a Bachelor of Science in non-scientific subjects. Examples include BScs in ayurvedic medicine (Thames Valley) and courses in aromatherapy (Greenwich). Such courses might fit under the umbrella of "cultural studies" or anthropology, but they don’t qualify as science, and offering BSc degrees in them constitutes fraud. In contrast, a degree in plumbing would fall into the former category; although there may be doubts regarding the intellectual content, the course would still be honest.
It’s true that there are many gray areas, but the blatant cases stand out. The teaching quality assessment should have tackled these issues, but it failed miserably because it didn’t consider whether the course content was truthful or ethical. Someone could receive distinction in voodoo if they submitted enough paperwork.
Emma Brockes recently questioned the practicality of a decision-making degree, but this isn’t a new issue. Roughly 25 years earlier, The Open University (which is otherwise fantastic) published its annual TV schedule with over a hundred pages covering every programme for each of its 32 courses, except for Decision Making in Great Britain. The explanation in each line was the same: "To Be Announced."
Regarding Luton University’s BSc Hons in decision-making, it might be beneficial to offer some short courses to government ministers.