Select Committee Inquiry - 'Compensated passes' and easier work are the reality, says lecturer

March 5, 2009

An economics lecturer has told MPs that her university is guilty of dumbing down its course content and pass marks, with the average graduate having to achieve far less to obtain a degree today than was the case just ten years ago.

In a written submission to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, Sue Evans, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, claimed that while work for first-year students is becoming easier, those who are failing their courses are being allowed to progress to the next year regardless.

Ms Evans provided the committee with examples of tutorial work given to all first-year students in Manchester Met's economics department, part of a compulsory module in mathematics and statistics.

Lower hurdles

In the academic year 1996-97, students were presented with the following question: "Represent the following relations graphically: ((x, y)?y=3x, x is a real number)."

In 2007-08, the first question students had to tackle was: "Calculate the following: (a) 10-3+5+4-6."

Ms Evans said that marks were reviewed by the examining board and often bumped up without consulting the tutors. In 2004, this allowed nine students to graduate who should not have done so, she claimed.

She also stated that Manchester Met too often granted "compensated passes", which allow students to progress to the next year of study even if they have performed consistently badly and received final grades below 35 per cent.

According to figures submitted by Ms Evans, eight students with marks between 22 and 34 per cent entered the third year in September 2005, and 17 students with marks between 14 and 33 per cent began the second year in September 2006.

Ms Evans claimed that student appeals were upheld too often. She cited the example of a second-year student who had obtained just 2 per cent in a unit, having attended fewer than 25 per cent of tutorials. She was allowed to progress to the third year.

Ms Evans also expressed concern about admissions from outside the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service system, with too many students lacking the right entry qualifications.

She concluded: "It is claimed by some that the system of external examiners has maintained standards. In my view, it is under the aegis of this system that standards have fallen."

Vigilant and fair

A spokesperson for Manchester Met said Ms Evans was "entitled to her opinions", but the university was disappointed that she chose to raise her concerns externally.

"Ms Evans expresses a lot of very personal views but presents little objective information," the spokesperson said. "The department of economics is keen to sustain academic standards and is not shy (of failing) students.

"If anything, grades are on the low side, as any reference to the league tables of firsts and 2:1s will corroborate. We must be vigilant that we are offering fair outcomes for our students while also maintaining academic standards."

The spokesperson said changes to marks are made only with the agreement of internal and external examiners, the exam board and the chair of the board of examiners.

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