Mark-up of 14% gave 'fails' a pass

April 21, 2006

De Montfort staff say they were pressed into inflating grades. Phil Baty reports.

The full story of how De Montfort University raised failing students' exam results, in the face of furious opposition from lecturers and external examiners, can be revealed by The Times Higher today.

Internal documents released after a landmark ruling by the Government's information watchdog reveal the extent of concerns about a decision to upgrade first and second-year pharmacy degree students after exam failure rates of 50 per cent.

The move ensured that failing students were able to progress to the next year without resits and, in effect, lowered the pass rate to 26 per cent on one module, or just 21 per cent with "compensation".

The documents show:

  • Staff and examiners said that the original poor results were generally fair because students were "not up to the rigours of the programme" and, in many cases, had a "poor attitude to work"
  • At an emergency meeting at which the upgrades were agreed, staff were told that high failure rates, if not rectified, could put their jobs at risk
  • There were allegations of "intimidation" of staff at the meeting
  • The manager who proposed the 6-14 per cent upgrades admitted that his plan was "generous" to students, but warned that more modest upgrades would not improve the pass rate enough
  • Four external examiners, not present at the meeting where the upgrades were agreed, described the decision as "deplorable" and warned that "we would disagree with any attempt to degrade the assessment to fit the students"
  • One member of staff complained the move was "academically indefensible"; another said it "lacked academic integrity, was without logic and was achieved in an intimidating atmosphere"
  • A programme leader and a module leader on the course resigned in protest at the decision.

Investigation

In March 2005, an investigation by The Times Higher found that De Montfort had been accused of abandoning academic standards at its School of Pharmacy after a decision in summer 2004 to boost marks on the MPharm degree.

Students' marks in four first-year course modules were raised by between 6 and 14 per cent, while two second-year modules were each boosted by 2 per cent.

The Times Higher requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act. But while the university released 25 documents, it refused to disclose nine others, which, it said, were exempt under the Act. Last month, the Government's information commissioner ruled that it was in the public interest for the information to be released, and the documents were handed over this week.

New documents

According to the minutes of the Subject Authority Board (SAB) meeting for the MPharm degree in June 2004, 53 students failed module Phar1414 on physical, inorganic and analytical pharmaceutical chemistry. On another module - Phar1416, relating to "liquid and semi-solid dosage forms" - the module leader attributed the large number of fails in part to "a lack of work and non-attendance" by students.

It was minuted: "The programme leader noted that students are told in induction week that they are expected to work hard." This meeting also recorded that the marking on the two second-year modules that were later upgraded had both been passed as "fair" by external examiners.

But the dean of the faculty of health and life sciences, Gillian Grant, was alarmed at the poor results and called an emergency SAB meeting to reconsider the marks. This was held on June 16, without external examiners present. The minutes of this meeting record that the original SAB had concluded "that students were not up to the rigours of the programme (and) that they did not have the right attitude to study".

But Larry Goodyear, who chaired the meeting and is head of the pharmacy school, "could not believe that 50 per cent of students had this attitude".

Rather, "he considered the failure rates could be due to staff not enthusing their students enough". He added that "he did not want to be head of a school that failed 50 per cent of students at the first attempt".

Professor Goodyear also "noted that, unless drastic measures were taken, the programme could lose a percentage of students high enough for the dean to recommend redundancies.

"It was added that if the programme team could not get students up to an acceptable level they might have to consider reducing... staff numbers."

Upgrading plan

The plan to raise marks was put forward by Geoff Hall, associate head of the school.

His proposal was to raise the results on the four most poorly performing first-year modules so they matched the average performance in the module students had done best in. This meant upgrades of 6 per cent for a module testing maths ability and 9, 12 and 14 per cent in the other three.

The minutes show that he warned that, while this plan was "generous", alternative proposals to lift results by 2 or 5 per cent "would not appreciably change the number of students expected to be terminated".

One module leader at the meeting, Andy Twitchell, complained that the 14 per cent upgrade "would pass students who had achieved 21 per cent", once "compensation" was applied.

The change to the results was approved by nine votes to five, with four abstentions.

The day after the meeting, Dr Twitchell announced his resignation as module leader in a note to the dean. He said: "I still think the decision... is academically indefensible... many students will be wilfully misled into thinking that they performed adequately.

"If word ever got out about what we have done... it could potentially have serious consequences for recruitment and the academic reputation of the school."

External examiners

Meanwhile, Professor Goodyear informed the external examiners of the changed marks: "I would have very much wished to call you to that meeting and/or consulted with you regarding the situation. Unfortunately, institutional policy has forced us to release marks."

On June 21, Malcolm Andrew, a lecturer who had been denied a proxy vote at the emergency meeting, wrote to the dean: "My own view, shared by some others, was that the approach that the SAB was obliged to adopt under your direction and threat of redundancies was precipitate, lacked academic integrity, was without logic and was achieved in an intimidating atmosphere."

He subsequently wrote to Philip Tasker, the vice-chancellor: "I do not believe that these arbitrary actions that have been taken are academically acceptable; they demean the university and they are an insult to those staff who are dedicated teachers... These actions do not have the support of the external examiners and, perhaps worst of all, they are dishonest to our students."

On June 28, the four external examiners, including Nicholas Barnes of Birmingham University and Michael Threadgill of Bath University, wrote a formal letter of complaint to the vice-chancellor. "We must record our profound reservations," they wrote. "We would disagree with any attempt to degrade the assessment to fit the students."

A spokesperson for De Montfort, who had previously stressed that the upgrades were properly approved by the faculty's senior external examiner and had not affected final degree results, said:J"The consistency of academic processes is critical to maintaining the highest possible quality of course and is something the university is continually scrutinising.J "We have thoroughly reviewed all processes and have made changes where appropriate. We continue to have every confidence in the quality and robustness of the pharmacy modules and course, in the staff who teach the modules, and in our students."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

Whistleblower investigates: c all now on 02077823298

 

From the extraordinary Subject Authority Board meeting, June 16, 2004:

'The chair noted that, unless drastic measures were taken, the programme could lose a percentage of students high enough for the dean to recommend redundancies'

'Dr Twitchell [one of the pharmacy module leaders] was opposed to the proposals [to upgrade marks] and noted that the moderations would pass students who had achieved 21 per cent in [his module]'

Letter from teaching fellow Malcolm Andrew to the vice-chancellor:

'These arbitrary actions... demean the university and are an insult to staff who are dedicated teachers. These actions do not have the support of the external examiners and, perhaps worst of all, they are dishonest to our students. Many of our students would be horrified if they knew this had happened'E-mail from Dr Andrew to the dean, Gillian Grant, June 21: 'My own view, shared by some others, was that the approach that the SAB was obliged to adopt under your direction and threat of redundancies was precipitate, lacked academic integrity, was without logic and was achieved in an intimidating atmosphere'

Letter from module leader Andrew Twitchell to the dean, June 17:

'I still think the decision... is academically indefensible. If word ever got out about what we have done, it could have serious consequences for recruitment and the academic reputation of the school'

Letter from four external examiners to Philip Tasker, the vice-chancellor, June 28:

'We must record our profound reservations. We would disagree with any attempt to degrade the assessment to fit the students'

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