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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.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Jokers Wild

Jokers Wild 1970

Leeds 1970. Mondays. Back to work. Accountancy 8.45 to 5.30. I’d better get used to it because it could be for the next forty years. One of the older guys could find his own handwriting in ledgers from the nineteen-thirties: like in Cat Steven’s Matthew and Son.

But there was one good thing about Mondays: Jokers Wild. The show had returned for a second series just after we moved into the first of our shared houses in March, 1970. I could be home for 6.15 when it went out on Yorkshire Television.

Jokers Wild was a classic comedy show in which two teams of comedians competed by telling jokes on topics from cards drawn by Barry Cryer. Bonus points could be scored by interrupting a joke part-way through and completing the punchline. It was pretty much the first British example of many similar show formats: the Mock the Week of fifty years ago.

Old copies of that wonderful provincial newspaper The Yorkshire Post, which at parochial odds with almost every other newspaper and magazine in the country listed Yorkshire Television ahead of the B.B.C., name the regular team captains as Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, with team members Les Dawson and Ray Martine. On the 6th April, 1970, the day my wild joking accountant boss had wished me a happy new fiscal year, they were joined by guests Clive Dunn and Stubby Kaye.

Ray Cameron (father of the present day comedian Michael McIntire), who invented the show, appeared in some episodes. Other regulars and guests read like a who’s-who of British comedy from the last days of music hall to the nineteen-seventies. Many of them smoked cigarettes overtly on-screen. Some are now so gone and forgotten they don’t even have Wikipedia pages.

Jokers Wild Trophy
Barry Cryer with the Jokers Wild Trophy (click to play)
A YouTube clip advertising a DVD of some of the shows has guests Joe Baker and Lance Percival, probably from the 13th or 20th April, 1970. In subsequent weeks the Yorkshire Post lists Jack Douglas (in character as the nervous-tic-suffering Alfred Ippititimus), Ray Fell, Ted Rogers, Graham Stark, Kenneth Connor and Arthur Worsley. Other online clips include Michael Aspel, Warren Mitchell, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Sid James. Wikipedia and IMDb also mention that over its five-year, nine-series run, others on the show included Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards, Roy Hudd, Alfred Marks, Professor Stanley Unwin, Norman Collier, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Goodwright, Jack Smethurst, Lennie Bennett, David Nixon, Roy Kinnear, John Cleese, Charlie Chester, Freddie Starr, Michael Bentine, Paul Andrews, Lonnie Donegan, Milo O’Shea, Kenneth Earle, Kenny Cantor, Clement Freud, Mike Hope, Albie Keen, Tony Brandon, John Junkin, Mike Burton, Don Maclean, Bobby Pattinson, Tony Stewart, Dick Bentley, Deryck Guyler, Laurence Harvey, Dickie Henderson, Bernard Bresslaw, Rolf Harris, John Pertwee and Fred Emney. As was the spirit of the time, few women appeared on the show, the only ones listed (including hostesses) being Isabella Rye, Diana Dors, Audrey Jeans, ‘the lovely’ Aimi MacDonald and June Whitfield. I can remember most on the list, but by no means all. Some were actually singers, actors or presenters rather than comedians.

They told a lot of sexist, racist, men-in-pub, wife and mother-in-law jokes. I remember Tim-Brooke Taylor being allowed almost to complete a joke about a town in Devon before being interrupted and reminded that the subject was supposed to be painting. “Oh,” he said sounding surprised. “I thought you said Paignton.” Ray Martine, a Polari-speaking, camp Jewish comedian with a reputation for witty and effective put-downs, became more and more ill-at-ease and hesitant as the series progressed. He seemed unable to cope with constant teasing and interruptions, especially from Les Dawson. On one program he looked so fed up he launched into a stream of jokes about Barry Cryer’s wife, which was taking things a bit too far. Barry Cryer took it with good grace and said that after the break they would be back with more jokes and a letter from his solicitor. And it was all done without a single swear word.

One might also reflect on prominent comedians of the time who were not on the show: no Morecambe and Wise; no Ronnies; no Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Dick Emery, Harry Worth, Charlie Drake, Benny Hill or Jimmy Tarbuck; only a minority of Carry-Ons, Pythons, Goodies and Goons; and so many, many others. Perhaps they were too busy, or under exclusive contract to the B.B.C., or maybe it was just not their format.

It was at least a last chance to see some of the older generation: the wartime generation and earlier. Arthur Askey and Fred Emney were over 70 when they appeared, with Ted Ray not much younger. From all of these lists it is astonishing to realise just how many brilliant comedians there have been over the years.

It looks terribly dated now and was probably more scripted than improvised, but it still raises a laugh. The DVDs for Series 1 and 2 are tempting. A positive review of the first appears here.

Jokers Wild Series 1 Jokers Wild Series 2

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Paul McCartney's Ram

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were especially irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? She was even accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed.

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, didn’t I have more sophisticated tastes? Didn’t I think of myself as a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung? How could the McCartneys’ frivolous and inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that even to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I mentioned this recently in commenting on another blog about post-Beatles Paul McCartney. I looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up recently getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

Another reviewer describes it as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable lifestyle, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.

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.

Previous book reviews