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The increase in first-class degrees has nothing to do with better teaching

Paul Finch

Showering students with top qualifications is not a sign of brilliant teaching or brilliant students. It is a sign of intellectual and moral dishonesty, writes Paul Finch

Shutterstock 598812200

Shutterstock 598812200

Having turned universities into semi-commercial enterprises, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that they begin to behave like businesses: trying to attract more customers by offering competitive advantage. Unfortunately, in the case of higher education this doesn’t necessarily mean better teaching or better facilities. Another of those advantages could be the ease with which you may be able to obtain a first-class degree.

This is an American ‘all must have prizes’ disease, now successfully exported. A friend of mine once taught US architecture students spending a semester in London. It was made very clear to him that all should be given ‘A’ grades, however useless or lazy they might be. This was because their parents had paid a fortune for them to go on the course. Anything less than an ‘A’ would imply a teaching failure and might be actionable. 

There is a very simple way to stop grade degradation

It is embarrassing to hear UK academics claiming it is their brilliant teaching that has resulted, in some cases, in the number of architecture ‘firsts’ increasing in the UK from 10 per cent to nearly 25 over a 10-year period, especially given the increasing number of students and the declining staff-to-student ratios. Perhaps the brilliant students are doing better because they get less face-to-face teaching (joke). 

There is a very simple way to stop grade degradation: you award firsts to, say, the top 10 per cent, upper seconds to the next 25 per cent, lower seconds to the next 25, and so on. This would put a stop to the sort of nonsense now being spouted about people doing better because of practical experience and oven-ready status. Either architecture is an academic subject, capable of being examined for degree and post-graduate qualifications, or it is not. Showering students with firsts is not a sign of brilliant teaching or brilliant students. It is a sign of intellectual and moral dishonesty.

David Dunster: a significant teacher and influence

The death of David Dunster at the age of 73 has come as a shock to his many friends and to generations of students he taught at Kingston, the Bartlett, South Bank and Liverpool. I first met him in 1983 when he arrived at the Bartlett and immediately agreed (I suspect without asking anyone) that we could mount an exhibition there of British entrants in the Bastille Opera House competition.

His studio teaching style was combative and witty, and many practitioners benefited from his generosity of spirit, which included bringing in stimulating external guests for interim crits, leading to wonderful exchanges (for example Derek Sugden quizzing Farshid Moussavi about her King’s Cross Euro-terminal design). David also chaired the RIBA public events programme in what now look like its glory years, again bringing in external advisers to add fizz to discussions about lectures and events. 

He loved cities (and, unusually, shopping) and could capture their history and atmosphere in a few well-chosen phrases, usually with good restaurant recommendations. He is a great loss. 

David despised grade degradation, by the way.

The Battle of Hastings should resume

The deal whereby a hotelier got his hands on Hastings Pier, apparently for the absurdly low price of £60,000, needs forensic analysis. This follows the huge public investment, via the National Lottery, in the Stirling Prize-winning project designed by dRMM. It is mysterious, to put it mildly, how anyone can justify the peanut-price paid for what should be regarded as a community asset. This is surely a case for potential judicial review to find out what happened and why a bigger rival bid failed to secure the asset for the people of Hastings – and the rest of us.


Readers' comments (6)

  • I particularly appreciate the mention of David Dunster here, thank you Paul. I would love to hear more stories, to add to my own still very vivid recollections of his compelling character. He was a brilliant lecturer, tutor and mentor and a huge inspiration for many generations of architects. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling an enormous debt of gratitude for his work.

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  • John Kellett

    "Showering students with top qualifications is not a sign of brilliant teaching or brilliant students. It is a sign of intellectual and moral dishonesty". Couldn't agree more.

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  • You are indeed not alone, Keir.

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  • Adieu David Dunster, he was everything an architecture critic should be irreverent, generous spirited, and always ready to talk - from a global perspective he was one of only a few of his generation who would readily talk and encourage research from the "south", I remember him once saying to me there's a an offer to run an architecture school in Puerto Rico - interested? and then a bit later there are some blokes in Holland that want to set up a thing called Docomomo which is going to be international soon you should get involved - I couldn't take him up on teh first but I did on the second. Good bye David your sardonic but infectious laughter will be sorely missed,

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  • Fond memories of David from me too - commentary on the febrile 1980s style wars, playful teasing and theoretical erudition, a soft spot for Italian Rationalism, and all delivered through the fug of good cigar smoke. He’ll be greatly missed.

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  • Hastings Pier sold for pennies on the dollar!?
    It would not be due to its being built using CLT panels??
    Surely not!! No Way!!
    Blasphemous even to think of such a thing.

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