De Montfort in exam furore

March 18, 2005

De Montfort University stands accused of abandoning academic standards after deciding to improve students' exam results by up to 14 per cent because their performance was so poor.

A decision last summer to change marks for pharmacy degree students - which in effect lowered the pass mark on one course to 26 per cent - was attacked by DMU staff and external examiners, documents leaked to The Times Higher show.

The four undergraduate external examiners for pharmacy complained that the upward revision was "deplorable", "inappropriate" and "improper". They said it left weak students wrongly believing that their performance on a course that leads to professional practice in pharmacy was "adequate".

"We must record our profound reservations about the practice," the four externals wrote in a letter to vice-chancellor Philip Tasker in June last year.

But the university, which banned staff from speaking to The Times Higher about the matter, stressed this week that the upgrades did not affect the students' progression and would not count towards final degree results.

It said the alterations were "proper" and had been approved by the faculty's senior external examiner.

DMU's popular four-year MPharm course is described as a "rigorous course of study for students wishing to pursue a career as a pharmacist". It enrols about 150 to 160 students a year.

The end-of-year exam results were approved and signed off by the four examiners at the Subject Authority Board in June 2004, after they had inspected a sample of examination scripts.

But after the university raised concerns over "some very poor marks", a second emergency SAB meeting was called without the external examiners'

knowledge by Gillian Grant, dean of life and health sciences. This SAB agreed "to change the marks for seven (sic) modules" without the external examiners' approval.

Two per cent was added to all marks for two second-year exams. The marks for four first-year modules, including a mathematics exam, were increased by between 6 per cent and 14 per cent. This meant that the mean result for each module equalled the mean for the module in which students' had best performed.

The external examiners said: "We deplore these events." The externals included Michael Threadgill, reader in chemistry at Bath University, and Kevin Taylor of London's Institute of Pharmacy.

Where marks had been raised by 14 per cent, "students who scored only 26 per cent on the original scale will be deemed to have passed (with a new mark of 40 per cent) and will progress into the second year", they said.

Such students are "very unlikely to be appropriately equipped to study", the examiners' added.

The examiners said they had been told that the changes reflected the fact that first-year students were "unused to university-level education", but said: "It is important that standards of assessment are maintained... we would disagree with any attempt to degrade the assessment to fit the students."

They said that general concerns about "waning student ability... do not warrant inappropriate, rash actions".

The examiners also claimed that staff had "clearly been put under great pressure to participate in this exercise to increase marks".

"We understand that the teaching team is very unhappy with the situation and that staff morale in the department is now low. Pressure from outside the examining team to adjust the marks is inappropriate and, we feel, improper".

The university declined to confirm how many students had their exam results changed and how many failing students passed as a result.

It said that the "moderation" of marks "routinely takes place at universities for legitimate reasons" and that none of the altered results "contributed directly to the degree classification".

Decisions about students' progression are not made at the SAB, but at a progression board attended by the faculty's senior external examiner.

John Gledhill, the senior external for the faculty at DMU, and university secretary at Coventry University, said he had thoroughly investigated and "found the concerns to be unfounded and was completely satisfied that the university acted in a completely proper and professional manner".

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