March 06, 2009

Statement on Current State of British Higher Education

The following statement was forwarded to the Department of Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills Committee (DIUS):

…I began my employment as a Senior Lecturer at Kingston University in September 2002. My job description included performing research as well as teaching lectures, individual tutorials, and providing module leadership and route leadership of the Creative Music Technologies and Composing for New Media programmes in the now former School of Music. In addition to my teaching and research duties, I was also expected to participate in Quality Assurance procedures, including attending Module Assessment Boards and Programme Assessment Boards.

My experience at Kingston University, which lasted until July 2006, when I was dismissed from my position for allegedly causing a breakdown in working relationships with my colleagues, was most surprising to me, having come from a background of teaching at high level American institutions, including Brown University, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Texas A&M University.

Plagiarism and Collusion

I was shocked and dismayed to discover quite early in my tenure at Kingston University, that acts of student plagiarism were routinely swept under the carpet, even those where the evidence of academic misconduct was incontrovertible. For example, on a number of occasions, groups of students handed in identical discs containing assessments. These discs were date and time stamped, so there can be no doubt that the discs were, indeed, identical copies. Two junior part-time staff members brought the fact of these acts of collusion by students to my attention on multiple occasions.

I was instructed by our BMus Course Director, Ms Gloria Toplis to bring to her attention any cases of suspected plagiarism and/or collusion. In January 2004, I did just that. I also brought further cases to Ms Toplis’ attention later that spring in around May 2004. I was led to believe by Ms Toplis that these cases would be investigated and appropriate penalties meted out if they were found to be substantiated.

In June 2004, I attended our Module Assessment Board Meeting. Having asked for but not having received a reply to previous queries to Ms Toplis concerning the status of the plagiarism investigations, I was unable to complete the final list of marks for the Module Assessment Board meeting for the modules in question. I therefore raised a question with Ms Toplis at the meeting in order to obtain clarification on the outcome of the investigation so that I could then finalize the list of marks. Ms Toplis and my other colleagues seemed extremely taken aback by my question, which was raised in the presence of External Examiners. She informed me at the time that although students were found to have colluded, they did so inadvertently, and that therefore, there would be no penalty assessed. I was quite surprised by this response, since the evidence was overwhelming that these acts could not have been committed inadvertently.

Following me having raised this question, I was then subjected to disciplinary action for having allegedly failed to present my marks in a timely fashion. Similarly, one of my colleagues, who was also a PhD student, wrote an e-mail to me in which he stated that he experienced a ‘distinct chill’ in the School towards him after having made this report of student academic misconduct. Later, he also reported to me that he was given an inordinately difficult time in relation to his PhD viva by the School’s internal examiner, a fact which he attributed to his having raised concerns about plagiarism.

Pressurising of External Examiner

During the 2003-04 Academic Year, one of our External Examiners, Dr Nicky Losseff of York University, attended performance examinations and reviewed student assessments at Kingston University as part of her Quality Assurance duties. Dr Losseff wrote a report in late June or early July 2004 in which she identified both positive and negative aspects of our programme. I found the report to be quite balanced, constructive and helpful, and urged my colleagues to take Dr Losseff’s comments to heart in order to develop a strategy for making needed improvements in the programme, particularly as it related to academic standards.

On 5 July 2004, shortly after Dr Losseff submitted her report, I received an email from our Acting Head of School, Dr Carol Gartrell, in which she wrote, “I think that it is important that the Examiner is sympathetic to and familiar with the challenges we face with regard to WP, Retention etc. and would be constructive in their feedback.” This email was sent in the context of a discussion of replacing Dr Losseff with a new External Examiner, one who would, according to my interpretation of Dr Gartrell’s intent, be less inclined to uphold academic standards, in order for us to be viewed more favourably in the public eye.

Following the submission of Dr Losseff’s report, our MA Course Director, Mr Mike Searby sent an e-mail to Music staff in which he stated, “I feel that Nicky’s report is both unfair and very damaging- especially the part which is to be published publicly. Can we ask her to amend that so it is less damning? It could really hit our recruitment badly and probably mean the quality of students coming would sink further…We must avoid externals with these attitudes in future – we cannot afford this type of bad publicity.”

I was utterly shocked by this e-mail, and raised my concerns accordingly to my colleagues that we ought instead to actually use Dr Losseff’s report to guide us in making improvements to our programme. My colleagues greeted that suggestion with disdain.

I recall during the early fall of 2004, attending a staff meeting in the School of Music where a discussion was held concerning a School response to External Examiner reports. I remember that my colleagues, especially Ms Toplis, Dr Gartrell and Mr Searby, strongly advocated that instead of responding to Dr Losseff’s report with a plan for making improvements to the quality of our programme, that we instead ask her to change her report to be less critical. Although I voiced my dissenting view on this matter, I was overruled and it was decided by a majority to ask Dr Losseff to change her report.

On 25 October 2004, I received an email from Ms Toplis in which she attached a revised report from Dr Losseff. Ms Toplis wrote, “Colleagues will probably know that the last section of Nicky’s report, the part which is made public, has been changed to our favour.”

Following my dismissal, after reading various press reports concerning the decline in academic standards in British HE and after considering the implications of making such a public disclosure, I decided in June 2008 to present evidence of what I believed to be wrongdoing by the University in connection with Dr Losseff’s report. I therefore sent copies of the relevant documents to Sean Coughlan of BBC Online. In an article published on 25 June 2008, Mr Coughlan wrote about the events surrounding the pressurising of Dr Losseff. According to the article, Dr Losseff confirmed the facts, which I presented and told the BBC that “the kind of pressure that was applied was that it would have dire consequences for the music school if I didn’t change the report.”

Similarly, I provided copies of the same documentation to Ms Alita Howe of the Surrey Comet. The Comet then published an article shortly thereafter in which Ms Howe reported that Kingston University “categorically denied the authenticity of the emails.” The article goes on to state, “further emails seemingly asking for a more favourable examiner to be appointed are bogus, according to the university.”

I will leave it to the Committee to decide whether or not the emails are genuine, but I would hope and trust that it would give due consideration to the fact that the accounts are corroborated by Dr Losseff, herself. I must say, for the record, that it troubles me greatly that the University would have the audacity to issue such denials in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing.

National Student Survey Scandal

In approximately early May 2008, I received a copy of an audio recording purporting to have been made simultaneously by a number of students enrolled in a large class in the Department of Psychology at Kingston University. As I understand it, the recording was made several months previously, but was not disseminated publicly out of fear of reprisals from the University’s administration. Ultimately, however, the students were persuaded to turn over the recording, and it eventually made its way to me.

After listening to the recording, I was shocked to discover that the staff members heard speaking in the recording, Dr Fiona Barlow-Brown, Field Leader of Psychology, and Dr Fred Vallee-Tourangeau, Deputy Field Leader of Psychology, had issued instructions to students to falsify their responses to the National Student Survey in order to raise the outcomes. Students were told by Dr Barlow-Brown that their degrees would be “worth s**t” if they did not do as they were told. Specifically, they were told that if they genuinely felt that the course deserved a 4 out of 5, they should raise their response to a 5 out of 5. Similarly, Dr Tourangeau instructed students to refrain from voicing their complaints about the course in this context, and to instead, voice them through internal module evaluation questionnaires, which would not be made public.

Following the receipt of this recording, I decided that it would be in the public interest to disseminate the recording to various press agencies and I forwarded copies to a range of publications, including the BBC and The Surrey Comet. I also arranged for the recording to be placed on a website that could be downloaded by members of the public. This led to it being further disseminated on the student news website at Imperial College and eventually, to press reports in major national and international publications. I also forwarded a copy of the recording to HEFCE, along with a formal complaint against the University, and engaged in various correspondences with them in relation to my public interest disclosure.

Eventually, I learned that HEFCE had taken the action of removing Kingston’s Psychology Department from the current year’s League Table results as its chosen sanction for the fraudulent pressurizing of students by the University.

Yet, I was surprised to learn from press reports that the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Peter Scott, denied having any advance knowledge of this course of events, and insisted that this was a one-off incident without precedent. I also learned from a reliable source that staff members and students had complained previously to the Vice-Chancellor about this practice, well before the incident became public, and as long ago as the previous academic year. They were apparently rebuffed by the Vice-Chancellor, and no remedial action was taken or proposed in response to the complaints. I have also since learned that no disciplinary action has been taken by the University against either Dr Barlow-Brown and/or Dr Vallee-Tourangeau. What sort of message does this send to students and staff alike about engaging in such unethical practices, especially when it involves a Department such as Psychology, which is supposed to teach students to become ethical practitioners?

Subsequent to the press reports, in around June 2008, I received a copy of minutes of a Psychology Training Event held on 3 June 2008 in the Department of Psychology at Kingston University. According to the minutes, Prof Gail Cunningham, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, made a surprise visit to the meeting and gave statements to the staff, which I was told amounted to a haranguing, not in relation to the conduct of Dr Barlow-Brown and Dr Vallee-Tourangeau, but in relation to the manner in which the information about the events in question had been released. Dr Cunningham went as far as to suggest that there had been “collusion with students in ways that are inappropriate.” The tone of Dr Cunningham’s statements was, I am told, rather ominous and threatening in nature, sending a strong message that such reporting of public interest disclosures would be met with harsh punishment by the University against any staff member who dared to do so in the future. Her main concern appears to have been the damage to the image and reputation of the Department and University rather than the actual conduct of Dr Barlow-Brown and Dr Vallee-Tourangeau.

Concluding Thoughts

These separate but not entirely unrelated events strongly point to a culture of fraud and deception in British Higher Education, as evidenced by the practices at Kingston University. Of particular note are the strong denials of wrongdoing by the University’s Vice-Chancellor and his failure to accept personal responsibility for the events taking place under his watch. Moreover, it appears that no sanctions whatsoever have been meted out against staff members engaged in improper conduct. Instead, staff have been bullied into silence by administrators. Staff members who dare to make reports in relation to misconduct and/or ‘dumping down’ of standards are quickly rooted out for disciplinary action and/or other detriments.

What does this suggest in terms of an explanation for the lack of strong action by the University’s Vice-Chancellor? I wonder whether or not the incidents described in this statement have, in fact, been directed from high levels of the University’s administration, possibly as high as the Vice-Chancellor, and at least as high as the level of Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Could it be that the University values public relations more than it values academic integrity?

5 March 2009, Dr Howard Fredrics

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