Pride and prejudice

March 19, 1999

Andrew Pakes argues that academics are wrong to oppose anonymous marking of work

At a time of passion and high emotion it is important that academics understand why students have launched a campaign for anonymous marking in every department of every university and college. Understandably, some academics, believing themselves under fire for discrimination, are reacting defensively.

A call for anonymous marking, however, is not an attack on lecturers but rather, an attempt to protect all against discrimination and the accusations of bias. Universities must not only be fair, they must be seen to be fair.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the failure to bring his killers to justice has highlighted the problem of institutional racism in the police. But last week a report from the Office for Standards in Education revealed just how bad the situation is in British schools. Its survey of 25 local authorities shows that four ethnic groups of pupils are underachieving badly. All educational institutions need to look at themselves in the light of these findings.

We know discrimination happens, all the research bears this out. At a London university, black students' marks were 4.2 per cent lower than those of white students. At one Scottish university, Asian students made up 20 per cent of the students on one course but represented 80 per cent of those who failed. At a university in Wales, 42 per cent of men got firsts or an upper second while only 34 per cent of women achieved the same. It happens all over the country.

Vice-chancellors may say: "That sort of thing does not happen in my university." But tell that to the gay engineering student, to the male student nurse and to the female astrophysics student. I do not doubt that most academics are able to keep their personal opinions and their assessment criteria separate, but the scope for bias - or perceived bias - will always exist unless reform is pushed through. A system of anonymous marking will protect lecturers from the kind of charges that we saw Ofsted level at school-teachers last week.

I can understand people having worries about the practicalities of anonymous marking. A lecturer "Andrew" said to me only the other week, "how do you anonymously mark a dissertation or even a PhD thesis?" If you supervised it then you almost certainly cannot. But no course worth its Quality Assurance Agency audit will assess without a second marker and/or an external assessor. Just because you know which one of your students is writing about "The Poststructural Consequences of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", there is no need for your fellow examiners to know.

There are a few cases - portfolio work, art exhibitions and end-of-year design shows - where anonymous marking is impractical. But that should not be an excuse for the rest of academia.

Academics must take the lead on this issue. The government and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals should be leading from the front, but students have come to expect very little from them. Instead, students are sending printed postcards, demanding change, directly to their vice-chancellor. More than 8,000 postcards have already been sent by concerned students, and thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Only when we have across-the-board anonymous marking systems will our universities and colleges develop into true arenas for equality of opportunity.

Andrew Pakes is the president of the National Union of Students.

* Should all marking be anonymous? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk Pakes re-elected, page 64

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