Marks U-turn is 'mockery of exam process'

March 30, 2007

A professor has resigned from Bournemouth University in disgust after senior managers overruled his decision to fail 13 of his students. Phil Baty reports.

It was a difficult decision, but Paul Buckland was entirely satisfied that it was the right one.

Based on 25 years of teaching experience, he had judged that 13 of his archaeology undergraduate students at Bournemouth University should fail the course that he had taught them.

His decision would have dire consequences for the students concerned, but his assessment that they had not met the basic standards required was confirmed by a second marker and had been endorsed by the formal examination board.

So Professor Buckland was astounded - and furious - when he learnt a few weeks after the exam board in September 2006 that the results had subsequently been re-marked and changed. The changes had been made without any consultation with him or the second marker.

The result was that the number of fails dropped from 13 to just three, and the students have been allowed to progress.

"This makes a complete mockery of the examination process and makes any quality assurance a meaningless exercise," Professor Buckland said. "I have never come across such blatant disregard for due process."

But perhaps more important, he said, the move "wholly invalidates" the effort made by other students.

The main examination for Professor Buckland's course, called Reconstruction of Environment and Economy, took place in 2006. There were 26 students who failed the course (with marks of less than 40 per cent), and the results were ratified as fair by the examination board.

In late August, 17 students took resits. Professor Buckland judged that 13 of the resit students had failed, and Rob Haslam, a laboratory and technical services manager who had taught on the course, agreed with the verdicts as the second marker.

The resit board met in early September. Minutes of that meeting show that there was a discussion about the high level of failure. This was attributed to a lack of revision by students and the lack of any "exam strategy" sessions for the resit students.

Miles Russell, a senior lecturer and the programme leader for the BSc (Hons) in archaeology, was at that exam board meeting. Records suggest that he voiced no concerns about the high failure rate during that meeting. It was only subsequently that he raised the matter and took action.

Dr Russell took the exam papers from the administrative office and reviewed the marks himself. He raised concerns with Brian Astin, head of the School of Conservation Sciences, where the course was taught, that the marks were unduly harsh and that there was a lack of comments from the second marker, Mr Haslam. He said that this suggested that the papers might not have been assessed properly by the second marker - a claim strongly denied by Mr Haslam.

Dr Astin arranged for a third marker to look at the work. Professor Buckland was informed of the decision to re-mark by e-mail.

Professor Buckland replied: "Do what is necessary, but I am not prepared to dumb the course down any further."

Iain Hewitt, research manager and student accessibility adviser for the school, was appointed to review the papers.

Dr Hewitt's notes, dated September 21, show that although he agreed with Professor Buckland that many of the students' answers were of poor quality, he decided that many more of the students deserved a pass.

Dr Astin accepted Dr Hewitt's marks as final and, without referring back to Professor Buckland, issued students with the results.

Professor Buckland complained to Nick Petford, the pro vice-chancellor, which led to an inquiry being launched into the "teaching and examination" of the course.

The investigation was carried out by John Vinney, head of the School of Design, Engineering and Computing, and Mandi Barron, assistant registrar. It concluded in January this year.

In a paper for the investigation, Dr Astin said that many students were struggling with the unit. He added that they should be able to pass without undertaking the required reading.

"It was noted that students were required to do background reading, which is, of course, highly desirable. However, our assessment criteria do allow for a basic pass on answers based on the lecture notes... It seems to me that the students will have been exposed to the outside reading undertaken by the lecturer."

The investigation report said that Dr Astin's decision to appoint Dr Hewitt to re-mark the papers was "acceptable" because there was little evidence of proper second marking. But the investigators said that the new marks should have been agreed with Professor Buckland before being ratified by Dr Astin.

They said that Professor Buckland and Dr Hewitt should have worked together to agree the set of marks. But whatever the outcome, "the team believe that it would be unacceptable to disadvantage any student and therefore their progression should still stand and the credit remain".

Professor Buckland refused to agree the new marks with Dr Hewitt because he felt that the papers had been fairly marked all along. Professor Buckland said that any queries should have been referred back to him and Mr Haslam via the exam board.

In a prepared statement, the University Executive Group, which consists of the vice-chancellor and other senior managers, "refuted" any implication that the normal examination process was perverted or that pass marks were given to students whose answers did not warrant passes.

The group said: "The report of the investigating team to the chair of the University's Academic Standards Committee concluded that university procedures had not been followed by certain individuals involved in the examination process. We put in place the actions recommended by the investigating team to ensure that the students had been assessed fairly and university procedures had been followed. These included re-marking the examination scripts by external examiners. We await the results of the external re-marking," it said.

Professor Buckland was so dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation that he resigned his post two weeks ago.

He told his colleagues in an e-mail: "I have enjoyed working in Bournemouth, but I am not prepared to continue working in an institution where examination boards are merely a formality that can be overturned by a head of school without any consultation."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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