VICE chancellor Mike Fitzgerald has admitted that an internal Thames Valley University memorandum ordering assessors to turn student fails into passes was amistake.
In a frank interview with The THES, Dr Fitzgerald said that the memo, from TVU's pro vicechancellor Susanne Haselgrove, was the unfortunate end result of massive administrative failure at the university. He said: "There is no question about it, it was a mistake. But it was a mistake made for the best of reasons."
Dr Haselgrove's memo dated October 2 contained the instruction to assessors that "marks from the September reassessments of 30 per cent or above will be considered as a pass set at 40 per cent". It prompted damaging press reports that accused the university of "dumbing down" degrees.
Dr Fitzgerald, who denies these claims, said the university administration had been overwhelmed when it received a glut of student assessments in June and July. Lecturers had withheld them for weeks as part of a dispute between lecturers' union Natfhe and the university.
The late release of the marks led to chaos, he said. University resit boards, that decide which students failed narrowly enough to merit a second chance, were left with patchy and unreliable information on which to base their decisions.
"This is not a small administrative hiccup we are talking about here but a major unravelling of the process," Dr Fitzgerald said. "And the root of the problem was the failure of management and the union to resolve the industrial dispute."
He said that, in his absence due to a double family tragedy, Dr Haselgrove had acted quite properly to ensure that students were not refused resit chances because of administrative problems that had nothing to do with them. But Dr Haselgrove included the instruction to actually mark up fails.
TVU's governors met on Tuesday to consider the situation, and approved an action plan and approved the overall strategy and direction of the university. However, they want the management team broadened and more staff involvement in decision making.
The Quality Assurance Agency has accepted a university invitation to satisfy itself that the problems are being addressed. QAA chief executive John Randall said: "We are happy to accept the invitation. It is entirely right and appropriate that the university took this approach. It is clearly something that the university wants to address as soon as possible."
Many TVUacademics support Dr Fitzgerald and the management's position. Paul Walton, professor of communications, said that dumbing down claims were unfounded and that the "administrative blunder" was the result of a "conflation of separate events", including the industrial action.
But others, backed by Natfhe, which began industrial action last November over changes to lecturers' contracts, maintain that the error is symptomatic of a deeper malaise affecting management. Union members were due to vote today on a motion of no confidence in the senior management.
Natfhe branch secretary Martin Roiser said: "We returned to normal working on May 16. The first exam boards met at the end of July and the first resit boards met in September. There should have been time for assessments and reassessments. The real problem is that the university attempted a massive reorganisation in the administration without enough time."
As arguments rage, it is TVU's 28,000 students, 44 per cent of whom are from ethnic minorities, who stand to lose most. Many see themselves permanently stigmatised by the dumbing down claims.
One law student said: "It's bedlam. What really worries me is that employers will see TVU as the university that awards upper seconds to people just for turning up. That's not true, but who will listen after this? There needs to be some sort of independent investigation to rebuild confidence inside and outside the university."
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