Select Committee Inquiry - 85% failure rate was 'appropriate', but marks were raised

Claims that academic standards are slipping have been submitted to an inquiry on higher education by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee. Among them are tales of pressure to increase grades, failing quality controls, lowered entry hurdles, and below-par and apathetic students. Times Higher Education staff report

March 5, 2009

Students on a Manchester Metropolitan University law course with an 85 per cent failure rate had their scores raised across the board despite an external examiner stating that the original marking was "appropriate".

The move was revealed by the tutor of the course, Walter Cairns, in written evidence to the House of Commons' Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, which is investigating charges of dumbing down in higher education.

However, Manchester Met issued a robust defence of its handling of the case. It said that the abnormally high failure rate reflected poor teaching in an individual unit and that the marks were changed in accordance with correct procedure.

It added that it was "extremely disappointed and upset" that Mr Cairns had raised concerns that it believed had been settled.

The course was a second-year module in international business law introduced in 2004-05. About 85 per cent of students failed that year. In 2003-04, a first-year element taught by Mr Cairns as part of a business environment course also saw an 85 per cent failure rate.

'Obvious failures'

A second marker who confirmed the 2004-05 grades stated that most "were obvious failures displaying poor knowledge", Mr Cairns said. The papers then went to the external examiner, who said that in general the marking was "appropriate" but raised concerns that grades were at the "low end of the scale".

Suggesting that the "full mark range" be used, the external examiner said: "The examiner (Mr Cairns) is correct in assessing the placement of students in relation to each other ... but the overall range would be better reflected if marks across the board were increased by 10 per cent. This would not allow those who deserve a fail mark to pass."

When the grades were tweaked, the 10 per cent increase suggested had become an additional 20 marks for every student, Mr Cairns said. The same rise had been seen in the marking for the 2003-04 course.

A memo from the chair of Manchester Met's board of examiners revealed that it made the move because a 10 per cent bump would "work to the advantage of only three or four candidates".

Mr Cairns said that his protests to Dame Alexandra Burslem, who was then vice-chancellor of Manchester Met, and others were overruled, and that despite the conciliatory comments in the initial report by the external examiner, he took a tougher line later.

Mr Cairns came in for criticism from the external examiner. "I do sympathise with (Mr Cairns) in that there are questions of academic integrity to be addressed in the response suggested. I do not agree with (him) that ... an entire class of students should be penalised for poor delivery and an inability to monitor student progress," he said.

"The obvious issue is the standard of teaching."

'Concerns about quality of teaching'

In a statement, Manchester Met said: "(Mr Cairn's) unit on the international business law degree was one of six, and the only one to come back with a high failure rate. The failure rate on the second-year unit in 2004-05 was so high, it raised considerable concerns about both the quality of learning and teaching on the unit and also overall programme quality.

"It was agreed that the student experience on the course and in the examination process was unsatisfactory, and, with the agreement of the external examiner and the examination board, the exams were revised for every student.

"This resulted in the highest-scoring candidates passing with a classification commensurate with their overall stage performance ... those with marginal fails passed, also in keeping with their overall profile. It did not result in everyone being passed. Indeed, it still left an exceptionally high failure rate.

"It is highly unusual ... to find it necessary to revise upwards the marks of a significant number of students on two consecutive occasions. Nevertheless, it is a function of the external-examiner moderation process that marks will be altered in appropriate cases. (It) exists as a safeguard where teaching may prove unsatisfactory while maintaining comparable standards."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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