Universities are taking controversial approaches to combat student failure rates to the dismay of staff
Middlesex University was accused this week of compromising exam standards by setting a " de facto " maximum failure rate for all its degree courses of 15 per cent of students.
The university strongly denied the accusations, saying its policy to officially investigate all failure rates above the 15 per cent threshold was an "entirely supportive" best-practice technique. The strategy has also attracted praise from academic inspectors.
But the case is the latest to highlight one of the most delicate balancing acts facing staff in higher education: amid increasing financial pressures to pass as many students as possible, stretched resources are being blamed for the unacceptabily high failure rates.
A memo leaked to The Times Higher sets out the university's policy to require any academic who fails more than 15 per cent of students on their course - including drop - outs - to hand in a "full report" to their academic manager and to detail the "remedial action" they will take to prevent the problem recurring.
The memo was sent to all staff in Middlesex's school of computing science by Alan Murphy, the school's director of curriculum learning and quality.
Written the day before Christmas Eve last year, it said: "In line with university policy, can all module leaders whose module had a failure rate of greater than or equal to 15 per cent... from last semester please make sure they hand in their full report to their (academic group chair) explaining why they had such a high failure rate and what remedial action they have taken this semester to resolve the situation."
Natfhe said the Middlesex policy could encourage staff to pass students whose performance may not warrant it.
This week, Natfhe said the policy was "distinctly unhelpful" and could be seen as a " de facto maximum failure rate".
Andy Pike, a national official for higher education at Natfhe, said: "This looks designed to make people think twice about failing students and will put pressure on staff not to fail too many.
"Any institution that says staff have to compile a formal report if their failure rate is too high puts the whole issue firmly in the arena of staff performance and capability and does not address the wider issues, such as the quality of student intake."
He said that Middlesex had put particular emphasis on recruiting large numbers of full fee-paying overseas students who may not be from an English-speaking culture and often found it particularly difficult at university.
"The result of such a policy is that if you uphold standards and your failure rate happens to be over the threshold figure, you will have to go through the rigmarole of a report to management and face the possible consequences if your remedial action fails," he said.
A spokeswoman for Middlesex said: "Alan Murphy's email reminds his colleagues... to contribute to the school's annual quality monitoring report if their module had a failure rate of 15 per cent or more.
"This policy is undertaken university-wide... it is a straightforward and easy way to make sure that relatively high failure rates, which have occurred for two successive years, are reviewed with a view to seeking to understand the issues that may lead to these problems. This enables extra support to be provided by the Centre for Learning Development. The policy is an entirely supportive one. No module has ever been withdrawn because of it. No student has ever been blocked from taking modules because of it."
She said the policy had been in place for four years, had led to many examples of best practice and had not affected standards. The QAA's audit of the university last year did approve the 15 per cent policy, but warned of another potential consequence - that 15 per cent could be seen by staff as an "acceptable" failure rate - "as referred to in some (university) reports".