Lecturers hit back at efforts to discredit grade-inflation claims

Manchester Met says whistle-blowers' comments are 'an insult to the university', writes John Gill

March 19, 2009

Two lecturers who blew the whistle to a parliamentary committee about alleged grade inflation and dumbing down have reacted angrily to their university's moves to discredit their claims.

As Times Higher Education reported earlier this month, Walter Cairns and Susan Evans raised separate concerns about standards at their institution, Manchester Metropolitan University, in written evidence sent to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, which is scrutinising universities and students.

The university's response to the allegations was robust, but now both lecturers have hit back, accusing it of factual inaccuracy in its attempts to counter their claims.

Mr Cairns, a law lecturer, told the select committee that marks on one of his courses had been increased across the board after 85 per cent of students failed. This was despite an external examiner describing his original marks as "appropriate".

He said the university's response to his claims, that the "abnormally high failure rate reflected poor teaching", was an unfair attack on his professional competence.

Mr Cairns added that, despite having worked at Manchester Met since 1987, he had never received a formal complaint about his teaching. He said that other courses in the international business unit besides the one he taught had also seen higher than average failure rates, and that the standard of his teaching was not questioned by the board of examiners when the grades were changed.

The only reference to his teaching had been made by an external examiner who had never seen him teach and who was not an expert in law, Mr Cairns said.

"In spite of being accused of teaching of such a dismal standard that it caused 85 per cent of students to fail, I have been allowed to continue teaching both the business law and international business law units (in which 85 per cent of students failed)," he said.

Ms Evans, an economics lecturer, was equally critical of Manchester Met's response to her claims.

She said that marks were often bumped up at Manchester Met without consulting tutors, and that in 2004 this meant nine economics students graduated who should not have done so.

In both cases, the university responded by saying it was "disappointed" that the lecturers had raised their concerns externally, despite the fact that they were responding to an invitation to submit evidence to a parliamentary investigation.

It also claimed that marks were changed only with the agreement of internal examiners, but Ms Evans denied that this was the case.

She said that she wrote to the academic registrar in 2004, asking why they had not been consulted. After a seven-week delay, she received a response, saying: "While it might normally be the case that internal examiners would be consulted in advance (of the board of examiners) over such a matter, this is not a formal requirement."

A spokesman for Manchester Met, Gareth Hollyman, said this week: "Staff and students are extremely disappointed with the comments made by Walter Cairns and Sue Evans, which are an insult to the university and its students. Manchester Met is subject to the same system of academic-standard review as the vast majority of UK universities. We firmly reject the suggestion that there is an issue of academic standards here.

"The circumstances referred to by our colleagues have been taken on board and dealt with, as they know only too well. It is regrettable that they have raised these particular disagreements again, several years later, while failing to seek positive "closure" through discussion and debate within the university."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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