This is an interesting story I find on academic standards at Oxford, interesting I find because it resonates very well with what I have experienced during my time at a "top 5" or "G5" university in the UK. It is a depressing picture I will paint for you indeed, very depressing. To say that standards have dropped is a bloody understatement. Standards have not dropped they have quite frankly disappeared.
First of all, to not get a first these days, at least from my course, would place you amongst the failures in this world. That said it is by no means an easy course to get into: you need at least 40 IB points (out of a maximum possible 45) and at least A*A*A with the two A*s in Maths and Physics and the third A-level should preferably be in Further Maths. The graduate tutors struggle to find good people unfortunately. We started of as a group of 80 students. 20 have since disappeared. Some have changed course but most have failed, which means either retaking a year or leaving the university. Most opt for the former but it is out of their own purse.
The status of our coursework is not much better, some of us try to produce original work but are placed in a very depressed situation when one finds that a lot of people have simply copied from the previous years. Seemingly without anyone noticing. This is so common that it is standard now. They have plagiarism software but it is totally useless; you could probably get away with claiming all of MacBeth as your own. It would never notice. Some lab rapports might as well be taken from a standard template. Zero thinking involved, only copying.
Then we have exams. This is the truly most depressing area of them all. Now, the reader should note that your humble narrator is by no means on course for a first. He is a pretty feeble academic superstar, a goon amongst the aces if you will. A first is not his business, he is not that clever. However I do appreciate a good challenge for my brain and we get that sometimes but mostly not. You see the way we and most people revise for exams is not by learning and understanding the material, no, we revise by exclusively doing past papers. Yes, you can throw in a few tutorials as well if you want to mix things up. But first and foremost people do past papers to pass the current papers. This manifests itself in a very strange way, particularly when the examiner has attempted to actually examine us and refuses to be part of the degree making machine. When they truly examine us, when they truly make original questions, people fail. They fail because they cannot think outside the box, they fail because they have learned a model answer and they fail because they have not actually learned anything at all, only a method. A way of doing things, not how or why it works, only that it does. Because that, it in the end, is what goes on your transcript; a mark which says that you know how to do X in Y way. And if Z presents itself you best get another scientist 'cause this one don't know of a method to solve this slightly different problem.
There is nothing original with our degrees anymore at least, they are nothing but certificates with a lot of really fancy sounding names on them.
Oh and I should also mention a really funny quirk; when a majority has failed an exam they scale the marks. Instead of asking themselves why they failed, or if the students genuinely know anything in their respective subject, they scale the marks. An exegesis of the student's actual academic fortitude is ostracised.
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