Dozens of student marks in a UK university were raised just weeks after a management email warned that a department was “out of kilter” with competitor institutions for the proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded.
Some of the marks in Teesside University’s computing school were raised using a standard Excel formula in a case that could be seen as a smoking gun for grade inflation in UK higher education.
Academics in the school were emailed by management in March 2016 thanking them for their “contribution in considering how we can improve the league table position in support of the university’s strategic vision and in light of the challenges that the TEF [teaching excellence framework] will pose”.
“It is important to acknowledge that we are out of kilter with the university and the sector with regard to good honours and to reflect on how we can address this in the short to mid-term,” the email, seen by Times Higher Education and sent by Alison Johnson, at the time an assistant dean, adds.
THE has been told that academics in the school were later urged to raise marks that were believed to be below those on comparable courses at other universities, despite staff believing that this was because other institutions marked too leniently.
In June, another email was sent by a lecturer to all academics in the school containing Excel formulas that allowed them to uplift marks by 12 per cent for second-year students and 10 per cent for third-years.
Teesside said that following a “moderation exercise” in one subject area, it found “that several modules, when compared to work from comparable universities, were being undermarked”.
“A proposed standard formula was developed by the academic team but, following further reflection this was not implemented across all modules. Some marks were appropriately adjusted to reflect the quality of students’ work and to bring them in line with sector academic benchmarks,” the university said.
Teesside said that standard formulas were not used for third-years, although THE understands that their marks still may have been adjusted upwards.
Higher Education Statistics Agency data show that the proportion of students graduating from Teesside with a first in computer science jumped to 41 per cent in 2015-16 and to 46 per cent in 2016-17 after never rising above 27 per cent since 2007-08. The share of “good” degrees – a first or a 2:1 – went from 59 per cent in 2014-15 to 73 per cent in 2015-16 and 80 per cent the following year.
The case is likely to stoke the row over grade increases in the sector, which have seen the share of firsts grow to more than a quarter and which mean that three in four students now leave university with a good degree.
Ray Bachan, a senior lecturer in economics at Brighton Business School who has investigated UK university grading, said that there was severe pressure on universities to rise up domestic league tables – which have metrics on graduates gaining good degrees – so that they can fill places.
“I think the sector is [doing] this not because they want to but I think they feel they have to and that [relates to] government policy,” he said.
Teesside said that any moderated marks still went through an external examiner process.
“We are confident, as are the external examiners, that students on these courses are receiving the marks that they deserve and continue to produce work of the highest quality,” a spokesman said.