Lewis Elton on assessment

Lewis Elton, upright 84 year-old physicist, educationalist, winner of a lifetime achievement award from the Times Higher, and father of Ben, gave a lecture here recently on assessment in higher education.

He’d like to do away, not only with degree classification, but with pass and fail, on the premise that a) they are inaccurate and crude, b) the only people who care about assessment are the employers, b) they militate against learning for learning’s sake and c) they mark students for life. As a compromise he would settle for the employers funding the current examination if they consider it necessary.

I talked briefly afterwards and for the first time to our Quality person who (finding herself, no matter how much she may be motivated by the idea genuine improvement, instead responsible for a government-defined notion of quality which Lewis, among many others contends, is entirely different) was understandably ruffled by this new direction. She cast Lewis as a proponent of a very West-European niche version of learning which is out of step with the majority of the world’s learners, and alluded to the kind of very focused people who were attempting to emerge from poverty via educational achievement. I pointed out that we are indeed a prosperous and successful West-European country and might be permitted to consider things from our own perspective. I mentioned the lack of focus and general cluelessness under which I made my own decisions about undergraduate course (English literature), which appeared to irritate her. She responded testily (the wine was strong) that she had had an entirely different experience and before my eyes I could see her impression of me hardening into that of a pampered, privileged child of elitists. I didn’t muster the energy to explain that far from that, I had parents of modest means who were very concerned for my education insofar as it would bring me material security, who ploughed their small incomes into this aim, foregoing most luxuries and some basics, and inculcating a certainty that my brother and I would go to university. I wasn’t particularly encouraged to consider learning either for the sake of learning, nor for the sake of business enterprise – in fact I wasn’t encouraged to reflect on it at all and if I came to any conclusion it was that I would acquire a degree as a matter of course and that the prospects it automatically conferred would reveal themselves with time. So I chose English Literature and Language, because I was praised for English Literature and Language at school, and because I had never really been given the impression that it mattered what I studied as long as I was obedient, cooperative and did the work assigned.

But after my friends and I finished our degrees, the advertised prospects did not materialise and most of us, graduates of non-vocational courses, were faced with jobs which offered far less autonomy than we’d expected. Some of us were taken by surprise and prescribed antidepressants. Having been constitutionally despondent since age 12, I was and am very difficult to disappoint, so I went to the U.S.A. and became an au pair until (this still horrifies me, but I wasn’t in the position not to be opportunistic) nepotism landed me a E.S.R.C research fellowship in an outlandish field in which I slogged my way to hard-earned success, if not brilliance.

I wonder if much can have changed – while governments continue to make declarations of the type that 50% of school-leavers should go to university, I can’t imagine that it has.

I asked Lewis whether, if the employers funded assessments, they would eventually be driven either to demand greater influence in the teaching of the courses or whether they would find it made more sense to pull their profession out of university altogether and return to an apprenticeship model. He thought not, and alluded to engineering as an example. (I’d like to remind myself how engineering education came to be university -based in the first place.) The Quality person pointed out that students gain much more out of university than subject knowledge, but if Lewis’ and others’ main thrust is accurate – that we have all but entirely instrumentalised higher education, we might suspect that these intangible benefits exist despite the system rather than because of it.

That is if he’s right. If he’s acknowledged to be right, I predict a revived split between institutions specialising in vocational and non-vocational subject areas. The non-vocational institutions will shrink to a small cadre of elite thinkers. Because they eschew assessment, they’ll have a hard time getting employers to fund them until they develop a reputation to make their case – instead they’ll depend either on the state or on fees or sponsorship. The academics at these institutions will have to work hard to be approachable because their accountability will be impossible to measure; because their students will be outstandingly motivated to learn, formal teaching will decrease or stop altogether. Instead, if students are funded, there will be a sense of collegiality and many opportunities for intellectual recreation. If students are not funded, they’ll be working too hard to participate in intellectual recreation and there will be either a tiny intake of very self-assured, self-directed learners or a high rate of attrition. School-leavers who feel themselves to be (or whose families feel them to be) lacking in judgement, direction or application will be funnelled into traditional, assessed courses and these will invariably be vocational.

An alternative scenario might come about if the policy makers were to take pressure off school-leavers to participate in HE, and instead keep open the prospect of taking it up at such a time as they feel equal to making the most of it.

I ran some of these thoughts past our Learning and Teaching man but he just looked blank and changed the subject. A tremendous night for being snubbed – this time by my line-manager’s line-manager in whom I’m extremely disappointed already due to his apparent lack of understanding of, curiosity about, management of (or indeed any sollicitude for) our department. I had initiated a conversation earlier (by saying goodbye) but a few minutes later found myself next to him (and Lewis, and somebody else) at the traffic lights so said hello to be polite rather than skulking behind them. He said “Ah, Fleshisgrass, we can’t seem to shake you off” and I said “But I haven’t even managed to get on yet”, which he didn’t understand and decided to overlook. Then I pulled away feeling very wronged and sorry for myself.

But later somebody invited me to chair a session at their conference, and I rallied a bit.

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