Criticism of marking system "kept hidden"

MPs told that university failed to pass on examiner's classification concerns. Melanie Newman reports

May 14, 2009

An external examiner's conclusion that a university's degree classification system was "perverse" was never passed on to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), a Commons inquiry into allegations of dumbing down in higher education has heard.

Gavin Reid, director of learning and teaching at the University of Leeds' School of Chemistry, told the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee that the standards watchdog had been kept in the dark regarding concerns raised about Leeds' classification system. "The QAA only sees what management puts in front of it," he told MPs as he gave evidence on behalf of the University and College Union on 6 May.

Under the Leeds system, marks of between zero and 20 per cent are rounded up, whereas marks of between 80 and 100 per cent are rounded down, Dr Reid explained.

The external examiner's remark that this was a perverse system reached the university's learning and teaching board but went no further, Dr Reid said.

A spokeswoman for Leeds said the classification system allowed reconciliation of marks in technical subjects - where students may score up to 100 per cent - with marks in the arts and social sciences - where scores in the 90s were less common.

"Although marks at each end of the scale are compressed, this doesn't impact upon the final degree class obtained by students. The system is under continual review," she said. No external examiner had raised concerns about the standards of Leeds awards, she added.

"All have signed pass lists and confirmed that standards are appropriate. Three of our 249 externals in the last session questioned the methodology and complexity of the classification system; their reports were fully considered, debated and made available to the QAA."

In a statement, the QAA said: "Institutional audit teams examine hundreds of documents, including external examiner reports, as part of the audit process. It is not QAA's normal practice to disclose details of specific documents used in audits.

"The institutional audit report for the University of Leeds lists good practice and recommendations identified by the audit team."

At the select committee hearing, Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, asked the UCU representatives if they felt under pressure not to bring their universities into disrepute.

Dr Reid said: "Some feel they can't speak out in staff meetings, let alone to Times Higher Education."

Veronica Killen, UCU representative for Northumbria University and a senior lecturer in midwifery - who also gave evidence to the committee - said: "We have somebody going through a disciplinary (action) for speaking out to the press."

Julia Charlton, a senior nursing lecturer at Northumbria, had spoken out against cuts in healthcare education budgets. She was quoted in a national newspaper on April as saying: "The staff-student ratio is already the worst in Europe. We're already teaching basic skills in groups of 24 rather than eight, even before the cuts. If the groups get even bigger it's just not possible to teach them how to communicate with patients or take blood. They can get to the end of their training not competent to practise."

The threat of disciplinary action was withdrawn before a UCU branch meeting to discuss the case.

Managers accepted that the lecturer had been speaking on behalf of the UCU, not on behalf of the university, Ms Killen said.

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