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Thursday 29 November 2018

The Commercialisation of Universities

First-class degrees and unconditional offers

Two items in the recent press about Higher Education:

1. Universities are awarding too many first class degrees. The think-tank Reform argues that universities risk losing their credibility due to “rocketing grade inflation”. Apparently, 26% of U.K. students now get first-class degrees and one university awards them to over 40% of students. Similarly the proportion of 2:1 degrees, nationally, is now nearly 50%. The think-tank suggests the number of first-class degrees should be capped at 10%, 2:1 and 2:2 degrees at 40% each, with the lowest 10% getting a third. (Guardian; BBC).

2. Universities are making too many unconditional offers. Ucas reports that a third of 18-year-old university applicants received some form of unconditional offer last year, made up of true unconditional offers, and conditional offers which became unconditional when an applicant makes that university a firm choice. Some institutions are also offering students four-figure bursaries. (Guardian).

The reports highlight massive increases in the numbers: a doubling of high grades over ten years, and an almost thirty-fold increase in unconditional offers over five years. 

Well, when I graduated in 1980, out of the 70 people who started the course, just 2 got firsts, less than 3%, and that was an exceptional year. Some years there weren’t any. And it was completely unknown for universities to make unconditional offers to 18-year-olds yet to take their ‘A’ levels; it might not even have been allowed.

Isn’t it simply a case of commercial organisations providing the service their customers want? In almost any other sector it would be singled out for praise. Perhaps if universities had not been turned into competing businesses in the first place, these things would not be happening.

Friday 23 November 2018

Significant Plagiarism Detected

Vainly looking at my blog statistics (both in vanity and in futility), I noticed quite a lot of hits from web site called PlagScan, a plagiarism detection tool. Had someone been scanning me for plagiarism I wondered. Well, scan away. I don’t pinch other people’s stuff.

Or do I? I went on to PlagScan (what an ugly name), uploaded the text of my post about Paul McCartney’s Ram L.P. and clicked ‘>Check’. The result: 96.2% plagiarism! What? How can that be?

Of course! It had checked the uploaded text against my blog so it was bound to find close matches. Checking the actual blog page rather than the text upload, and disregarding all the matches against recurring items on my own and other Blogger blogs (e.g. lists of blog archive dates), brought the score down almost to zero. I say “almost” because apparently my use of the phrase “One thing led to another” is plagiarised from the text of Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel Galaxy. Thanks, Isaac.

There are many other checkers on the web too, some free, some usage limited, some pay only. Some of the free ones are so useless they detected hardly any problems at all with my text, not even against my own blog. The expensive ones say “Significant Plagiarism Detected” and then wait to detect your significant payment before they give you the details.

Plagiarism has clearly become big business since colleges and universities started to worry about students passing off others’ work as their own. Unscrupulous students had been getting away with it for years, but it was becoming an epidemic.

At one time they preferred to pretend it didn’t happen. When I spotted it in my first lecturing job in 1985, they ignored it. A student had submitted an entire 5,000-word magazine article as his final-year Higher National Diploma dissertation. Unluckily for him, I had read just about everything there was on the topic because I was doing a Ph.D. in the area. Never underestimate how much university lecturers know about their specialist interests. With almost any other marker he would have got clean away with it.

However, the course leader, a senior member of staff, regarded it as more of a nuisance for him than for the student. Placing expediency before inconvenience he said: “Give it a merit rather than a distinction on the ground that it relies too heavily on a limited number of sources,” and added, “and perhaps it would be best if you were absent from the examiners’ meeting.” Which is what I did, complicit in academic dishonesty, glad of the extra day to spend on the Ph.D., an unforgivable failure of integrity.

Shouldn’t the student have failed his project, if not the whole course? I think back to a girl at school in the nineteen-sixties caught with an aide-mémoire during a G.C.E. exam. Not only was she penalised in that exam, the Examination Board barred her in all subjects and she left in disgrace. That’s how severely cheating used to be dealt with.

As more and more instances emerged, universities began to develop plagiarism policies and procedures. Some managers built good careers out of it. When I came across another plagiarised project fifteen years after the first there was plenty of guidance about what to do.

A student had submitted a project in which more than half the content had been copied verbatim from an American web site. This time, as course leader myself, I was not too pleased to have to spend the best part of an afternoon writing a report about the extent of the plagiarism and other background issues. The Examination Board awarded an ordinary degree rather than honours. Again I wondered whether the student should have failed his degree completely rather than being penalised only in the project module. It seemed an institutionalised failure of academic integrity.*

Within a year or two, such shameless, extensive plagiarism became impossible. Universities turned from handwritten to electronic submission and bought in powerful systems such as Turnitin to identify chunks of text taken from elsewhere. Students knew for certain it would be spotted. They could even use the systems themselves to check they had not inadvertently broken the rules (or to find ways to get round them).

It did not prevent one strange case I know when an external examiner accused a student of plagiarism during a handwritten, invigilated examination. The student’s answers contained paragraphs from a textbook written by the examiner herself. Strictly this was plagiarism, but the very nature of an examination is that answers may contain unattributed content, such as when a student cannot remember where it came from. And it is not unknown for some students to consign whole passages of text to memory. That is what the student had done here. She was still able to recite the passages later. She got a good mark.

To one who came to computing when we had to code our own database search and compression functions, plagiarism checkers are impressive. The speed with which they trawl through petabytes of documents to find a single phrase is nothing short of miraculous. The latest versions can even check individual writing styles to identify third-party and contract cheating where students submit work written to order by others, such as essay mills. I suppose you could still get away with paying someone else to write an essay for you and then rewriting it in your own style. Or even using artificial intelligence in article spinners such as WordAI to do it for you.

But I doubt they will ever pick up the highest level of plagiarism: the plagiarism of ideas. Take the bit in my Ram post, above, where I ungenerously and unfairly liken Linda McCartney’s performance to:
“… a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless”
It matches my own memories of primary school, but the genesis of the idea is in Jayson Greene’s brilliant review, linked near the end of my piece, where he compares it to:
“… little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling-- whatever it is you did, make sure you're back there doing it with gusto.”
Is that plagiarism?

It’s not as bad as Dan Brown who got away with using others’ ideas in The Da Vinci Code because, as the judges put it, he had used only “generalised or other unprotectable ideas” that were “of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law”. And certainly nothing like Roots whose author Alex Haley had to fork out $650,000 for plagiarising ideas from a novel called The African

Do we stand on the shoulders of giants, or is it, as T. S. Eliot said: “good writers borrow, great writers steal”?

Now, where did I read all that?

* I do not believe many students want to have to cheat in this way, and its occurrence might indicate inadequate supervision or care. There were a lot of background issues in the second case, so possibly the final outcome was fair, but the student in the first case was extremely fortunate to get away with it.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Thursday 1 November 2018

Review - Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods?

Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (2*)

In 1965, through the Top Deck Shandy promotion mentioned in a previous post, I acquired a book by Frank Edwards called Stranger than Science, originally published in 1959. It was based upon the author’s American radio series which described things beyond our scientific understanding, such as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), the Loch Ness Monster and a man who suddenly disappeared in full view of several witnesses. I’m not ashamed to admit it was a favourite which I enjoyed enormously and devoured uncritically.

I don’t know what became of my copy, but in 1974, Book Club Associates sent me another of the same genre: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, which was a best seller on first publication in 1968. Although not as satisfying as Edwards’ book, it covers much of the same material and has remained on my bookshelf ever since.

The central proposition is that at one or more points in our pre-history, the earth was visited by aliens with unimaginable powers who influenced early human culture. We may even be descended from them.

I would dearly, dearly like to be able to believe this but, well, let’s not kid ourselves, most of it is complete bollocks. Much of our most popular fiction, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws upon similar ideas. It might excite your imagination but no one else claims it to be true.

To support his proposition, von Daniken argues that ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids demonstrate higher technical skills than were available at the time they were built, and that prehistoric texts such as the bible contain descriptions of aircraft and advanced technology. They could therefore only have been created by extra terrestrials or by lessons learned from them.  

To give just a few examples:

He claims that the Sarcophagus of Palenque in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Mexico, as drawn above on the dust jacket, shows a spaceman sitting in a rocket;

He contends that the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert are the remains of spaceship landing sites built to alien instructions;

He suggests that the biblical account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom is actually a description of a nuclear explosion.

He believes that the Tungusta event in Siberia in 1908 was another nuclear explosion.

The book is packed with this sort of stuff. The trouble is that a little googling reveals that most of these things can be accounted for by more plausible, more mundane explanations. For example, evidence strongly suggests that the Tungusta event was actually caused by an asteroid bursting around five miles above the earth’s surface, and there are now more plausible scientific theories of how the pyramids were built.

There are however some things in the book which seem to defy explanation. It seems unbelievable that during the first or second century B.C. the Greeks were able to construct a complex clock-like machine, now known as the Antikythera mechanism, which followed and predicted the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac over decades. It incorporated 37 bronze gear wheels of a complexity not seen again until the fourteenth century.

Similarly, some of the supposed UFO sightings are a mystery: such as the incident at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1965 when a considerable number of witnesses – von Daniken states 58 – saw a large, glowing red flying object. Although it has since been suggested that it may have been an in-flight refuelling aircraft and boom, a quick online search reveals later incidents that remain harder to explain.

What I really disliked about the book, though, is that it is appallingly written and organised. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the original German, but online cross-checking of events and phenomena reveals numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in details, names and dates, suggesting sloppy scholarship. Chapters supposedly on one topic jump across other topics, times and locations. Descriptions and interpretations are blatantly embellished, one-sided and tendentious with little attempt at balance. Some part of the book are entertaining, but much is tedious. I have marked and supervised several Ph.D. theses in my time, and believe me, von Daniken’s stuff would fail outright.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose I must have enjoyed it in 1974. Not any longer. It’s going to the charioty shop of the gods. I wish I had re-read Stranger Than Science instead.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

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