This story makes the rounds from time to time: Because of the way higher education in Denmark is financed, teachers are tempted – or even forced – to let students who should have received an F grade pass.
The reason? First, universities are financially pressed, so departments and faculties need all the money they can get (okay, this goes for just about all organisations) and, second, universities receive funding based on the number of students who pass exams. The more students who pass, the more money.
This is a nice, typical NPM way of doing things which works beautifully – as long as there is no goal displacement. Which is something pre-NPM organisational theorists knew about. So, for instance, if a NPM scheme puts emphasis on economic incentives as a means to achieve academic goals, the organisational goal may easily shift to attracting economic funding with academic standards becoming less important.
Another case in point: University professors discuss how many papers they have published, not what insights to the field of study they have contributed. This happens because the Orwellian named Ministry of Science wants to base university research funding on the number of publications.
In order to counteract this, NPM systems have to rely on extensive hierarchical and outside controls – which is why academia, like other parts of the public sector, is being flooded with evaluation agencies, layers and layers of managers and rules and regulations as if there was no tomorrow.
Anyway, I hear you ask, I taught at different Danish and Swedish universities between 1992 and 2008 and have I ever experienced a situation where superiors directly or indirectly “expected” me to pass students who did not live up to the standards formally described?
Actually, no. I cannot mention a case where there was a direct or indirect expectation that a certain part of the student group should pass (or fail) an exam – which is not to say that the drop-out rate was not a cause for concern in a number of cases when it came to PolSci (or, during my time in Sweden, PolMag) programmes. As it is, drop-out rates varied wildly – in Copenhagen something like 90 per cent of the students who started on “my” courses also passed the final exams with the rest disappearing along the way, in the first-year courses I gave in Sweden, something like 20-25 per cent received an F at the first exam.
So, never ever? Well, there was one case with a programme that seriously needed being taken care of. I and others discovered this when I had to fail almost half of the class – which was not particularly funny. I had to spend some time telling the powers that be that something was very wrong here and that professional standards had to be applied rigorously.
And the thing is: Students actually respect teachers who take professional standards seriously.
But in all of this, I can see a problem if a) the professional culture is underdeveloped or b) management gets too much power – or both. My point here is that managers who are not in line with the academic or vocational professional culture tend to look at indicators in the bottom line rather than at the hands-on experience of the quality of programmes and teaching.