Plans by a university law school to “normalise” exam marks - which would have helped more students to gain a better degree classification - sparked a backlash from staff, Times Higher Education has learned.
Minutes of a meeting in the University of Surrey’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law obtained by Times Higher Education show how several academics spoke out against plans to “restandardise” exam papers, claiming that it would compromise the law school’s academic integrity.
The leaked documents show that the plans were debated in July 2011 at a meeting of the board of examiners for Surrey’s LLB Law course.
According to the minutes, concerns were raised that exam marks for some modules had been altered. It emerged that the results had been “normalised” to test a new process that gave extra credit to students on modules that traditionally produced lower exam marks.
The faculty’s associate dean, Andrew Lockwood, who is also Forte professor of management at Surrey, told the meeting that the marks had been changed, pending the board’s approval, as “the Law School [is] out of line with [other] good institutions” in awarding “good degrees”.
He added that marks awarded in five of the modules taught by the law school “were not consistent with others”, which implied that “some students [were] being disadvantaged”. Professor Lockwood argued that the “reclassifying” of marks would bring these modules into line.
However, it was noted that the change would mean the one-in-five failure rate for the EU Law module would fall to one in 12 students.
According to the minutes, one academic said that EU Law was a “core subject” and that “statistical manipulation of marks is not customary or accepted in relation to a law degree”.
She added: “[Altered] results are a misrepresentation to the professional bodies and it is inappropriate for the board to make this decision.”
Another academic said that she “recognised the pressure to normalise marks in light of the grade inflation throughout the country” but was apprehensive about a clear fail being raised to a pass “as the student has not met the criteria”.
A third said that she “strongly objected to marks being altered without consultation” and that it was “not unusual for subjects to differ (in pass rates)”.
However, one of their colleagues complained that Surrey students would score lower degrees than their peers at other universities because the “majority of law schools have more flexible regulations for awarding students”.
David Allen, the faculty’s dean and professor of management, insisted that the “normalisation of marks is a standard process and does not involve inflating or massaging marks”, the minutes state.
The proposals to “normalise” the modules were defeated by 11 votes to 6 in a secret ballot and the original unaltered marks carried forward.
A spokesman for the University of Surrey said the discussions over two particular modules were to “take account of anomalies, where the pattern of achievement differed significantly from others”.
“Moderation and discussion about marking is normal practice in academic institutions,” he said. “There is absolutely no question of any attempt to reduce standards.”
He added that the university has a rigorous process for assessment, which used external examiners in support of the board of examiners.