#FeesHaveNotFallen but the quality of education falls

2015-11-13 19:47

The #FeesMustFall movement began towards the end of the academic year when preparations for exams had already started. Many of the protesting students were concerned about the impact of the protest on their final assessment and since launched #ProtestAndPass which seemed to have been abandoned with calls for the Continuous Assessment Mark (CAM) to be used as final mark and cancel exams altogether.

This was initially rejected by institutions of higher learning including UWC because the view was that it would undermine the credibility of the institutions' assessment practices as well the qualifications awarded to students in the end.

UWC Registrar sent an email expressing reasons for why the university rejected the call for the CAM to be used as a final mark. She said that " This mark (CAM) is not a true reflection of students’ performance as it is applied differently across various modules, thereby making it less reliable and valid than the formal assessment system which requires internal and external moderation". Because you always require some sort of standardisation on assessment practices, no?

Today the Registrar sent an email to the UWC community announcing that students who are not in their final year do not have to write the examination, their CAMs  would be used as final mark for the subject. A decision she had rejected earlier  saying "the request to use CAM as a final assessment mark was therefore not considered to be a sound option"  sincethey were "less reliable and valid than the formal assessment system"

This marks a very sad turn of events considering that you can actually fail a subject with a CAM of say 90% if you were unable to get the minimum mark required for a pass in the exam. But this decisions means your CAM of 90% secures you a pass with distinction when you could have failed the subject altogether had the university maintained the integrity of the assessment processes. Students have had to repeat modules in the past, sometimes not graduating because of this. Today the CAM becomes a credible final assessment mark because of students who burned university property, broke things, intimidated others, and looted shops on campus making life impossible for those who live   on campus. Of course we cannot forget police "brutality" that followed.

How did we get to compromising the pre-set standards on the way assessments are conducted? Is the use of the CAM as final mark not setting a terrible precedent? Considering that the university was first to point out that the use of CAM as final mark was less reliable and valid, how can anyone take person who presents a UWC qualification seriously?

Last year, my final year Public Administration class was invited to do a mock submission at the Western Cape Provincial Parliament. The brief was that we had to choose a problem that could be addressed by the provincial legislature and make recommendations on how the legislature should best solve the problem. The proposed solution had to have some form of community involvement.

We were split into groups and went on different days as we were a big group. Listening to the presentations from some of the groups I couldn't help but notice how they lacked an understanding of which sphere of government is responsible for which particular function. We were required to submit a proposal that could be implemented by a province but some were talking about reforming the criminal justice system while others were proposing amendments to the constitution of the Republic. Apparently the Western Cape Provincial Parliament has the power to do all of this.

Those who did pick issues that could be addressed by the provincial government such as housing failed to show how the province could address the issues, instead opted to focus on City of Cape Town and amending the constitution of the Republic. Could not even link the City of Cape Town through legislation, to the various provincial departments that would have helped address the issues identified by the students. Of course some of the students failed the course entirely.

But a critical question to ask is how did they get to be final year students in a Public Administration class and not understand which sphere of government is responsible for what particular function? This we were taught at first year, and on introduction to policy analysis at second year but in your final year you struggle to demonstrate knowledge of things you are expected to know? What happens when you are on the job?

 Why did this happen? Perhaps because of the free pass. And the decision to use the CAM as final mark makes this worse because those students will now move on to the next level of the academic programme having been assessed with, in the words of the Registrar, "less reliable and valid" methods. The push to just pass regardless of whether or not you can demonstrate knowledge of things you are expected to know is scary. Remember that in your first class for each module you are given a course outline which contains learning outcomes? Can we confidently say that these learning outcomes have been achieved?

That experience in parliament was very embarrassing. We hope that those who are fast tracked to the next level of their degree programmes through the use of the CAM will not have such embarrassing experiences. Heaven knows what will happen if you have such experiences with the use of the CAM and exam mark firmly in place.

It is all good and well to protest for free education, perhaps we ought to amend that to "protest for free quality education" because in the end, we don't want to walk around with qualifications when we cannot demonstrate knowledge of simple things we are expected to know. This is important because not maintaining standards is very dangerous as it may undermine the credibility of the entire qualification not just the subject you got a free pass on. There are already whispers that universities are in the business of selling qualifications and formal assessments are just that, a mere formality.

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