Pass rates are all about the cash

July 16, 2004

I share Annette Marshall's reservations (Letters, July 9) about the fiddling that happens between exam marking and meetings of boards of examiners and at the meetings themselves. One always has the uncomfortable feeling that the administrative staff who service these meetings and are later required to "adjust" objectively assessed marks do not entirely approve of what goes on.

But the fiddling does not stop with the publication of results. Students may not appeal against "the academic judgement of the duly appointed examiners" - that is to say, their actual marks - but those who fail can and do make contact in a variety of less formal ways to suggest reasons why this judgement should be set aside or why it is unreasonable to expect them to take resits. "I got a 37 and two 38s, aren't those marks near enough for you to give me a pass anyway?"; "One of my coursework assessments was marked at zero because they said I had copied it. If I had passed on that I would have passed the module overall, so can't you make an exception in my case?"; and my personal favourite: "I did not expect to have to do any resits (four were required) so I returned to my country for the summer leaving all my books and notes in the UK. Would it be possible to defer my resits until next year and still go to the next stage straight away?"

There is one common theme in all this pleading: a belief that it is the university's job, rather than the student's, to retrieve the situation. And students believe this because they have heard on the grapevine that such things happen (although not in any of the cases mentioned above).

Rather greyer cases also emerge: the single 38 among a clutch of passes that seems somehow to have escaped the board's exercise of discretion. One senses that the 38 is probably a generous version of 34 (pre-board fiddling that refused to go quite as far as a downright lie); that the 40 and 41 alongside both probably started life as 39s (in-board fiddling on a benefit-of-doubt basis); and that overall this student is basically not quite up to it. But because the initial picture has been incrementally fiddled with, it now appears to both student and extra-departmental scrutineers as one to which "sympathetic consideration" may surely be given.

Why does all this fiddling go on when no self-respecting academic likes it? It has little to do with ensuring that underperforming students are given every chance to succeed eventually. But it does have everything to do with the bollocking that the whole department gets from the university if its overall pass rate falls below an "acceptable" level and takes next year's income with it.

A Chief Examiner
(Name and address supplied)

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