Official reports 'dish the dirt'

March 25, 2005

Universities have been forced to reveal a catalogue of falling standards, quality-control weaknesses and blunders after a Government initiative to reveal previously secret examiners' reports.

The Times Higher analysed hundreds of reports from external examiners, published on the new Teaching Quality Information website, which allows the public to access information on the quality of every university course. The reports reveal concerns about:

* Students passing exams when not justified by performance

* Students passing courses despite "extremely poor" exam performance

* Overly generous marking, including giving "too many first-class awards"

* Unfair and unsound procedures for deciding exam grades

* Inconsistent handling of plagiarism

* Poor grasp of English by overseas students

* The need for remedial support for weak students.

The Times Higher's analysis also shows dramatic variations in the reports'

content, from simple "yes/no" answers to longer warts-and-all accounts.

Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said that such reports confirmed his fears that the website would "dish the dirt around the international stage" and unfairly damage reputations - and even Britain's position in the international market.

Others, including the National Union of Students, welcomed the move towards more accountability.

At Liverpool John Moores University, the examiner's report on its industrial biotechnology MSc says standards are not comparable with similar programmes and advocated a more rigorous selection process. The examiner for the early childhood studies BA at LJMU says that, in some cases, students fail to show they have reached pass-level standards.

On the maths, statistics and computing BSc, the examiner says students are able to pass some modules due to coursework, even though their exam performance is "extremely poor".

LJMU said this week that 99 per cent of its externals had approved course standards and that it acted on any issues raised.

At London South Bank University, one external examiner for the English degree warns that students can pass despite "significant omission and/or mistakes".

South Bank's examiner for business information technology warns that exam boards impose different plagiarism penalties. Examiners for its mechanical and manufacturing engineering course say "there were too many first-class awards". A South Bank spokeswoman said that, in every report, examiners confirmed that standards were appropriate.

The examiner for London Metropolitan University's BA in furniture and product design says that standards set are "considerably lower" than are generally expected of the institution.

In his report, Derby University's multimedia technology and music examiner refuses to confirm that the process of assessment is fair. Derby said that the examiner had misunderstood rule changes and was now "entirely satisfied".

At Oxford University, the external for a biodiversity MSc reports "difficulties with English skills of some of the students".

The Quality Assurance Agency will audit the TQI site's accuracy.

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