A university put forward plans to assess academics’ performance according to the number of students receiving at least a 2:1 for their modules, Times Higher Education can reveal.
According to draft guidance notes issued by the University of Surrey - and seen by THE - academics were to be required to demonstrate a “personal contribution towards achieving excellence in assessment and feedback” during their annual appraisals.
Staff were to be judged on the “percentage of students receiving a mark of 60 per cent or above for each module taught”, according to the guidance form, issued in June 2012, which was prefaced by a foreword from Sir Christopher Snowden, Surrey’s vice-chancellor, who will be president of Universities UK from 1 August.
“The intention of this target is not to inflate grades unjustifiably but to ensure that levels of good degrees sit comfortably within subject benchmarks and against comparator institutions,” the document explained.
After “extensive negotiations” with trade unions, Surrey dropped the proposed “average target mark”, with replacement guidance instead recommending that staff show there to be “a normal distribution of marks” among students.
However, Julie Hall, vice-chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association, said that setting any sort of grade target risked compromising academics’ ability to award marks impartially.
“Staff might not be able to challenge students in the way that they should,” said Ms Hall, who is also director of learning and teaching enhancement at the University of Roehampton.
“Academics in the US are often judged in these ways, which often leads to the safest kind of assessment in which students will do well.”
Finding reliable metrics to judge teaching quality was “notoriously hard”, with degree classifications offering limited insights into the standards within departments, Ms Hall added.
“You are actually measuring the abilities of your intake, which can always change from year to year, rather than staff input,” she said.
Michael Moran, University and College Union regional official for the South East, said that the UCU had been concerned that Surrey’s proposals placed “inappropriate pressure on academic staff and had the potential to distort marking patterns”.
“After extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached with Surrey to amend the performance appraisal system and remove the percentage target for 2:1s,” he added.
Fears of inflation
Degree inflation across all UK universities continues to be a source of contention: 66 per cent of students left university last summer with an upper second or first-class degree - up from 61 per cent four years earlier, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This week, The Sunday Times reported on a study published by the Royal Geographical Society suggesting that rules for awarding firsts and 2:1s were being relaxed in some universities.
Surrey’s ditched proposals come after a row at its law department over a plan to “re-classify” some module marks, as the university feared that not enough students were achieving “good degrees”.
The plan, proposed in July 2011, was voted down by staff, but statistics obtained by THE show that the proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded by the department rose to 82 per cent in 2012 - up from 56 per cent in 2011 and 52 per cent in 2010.
Several staff had left the faculty over the pressure to increase marks, one academic told THE.
Statistics show that 98 employees have left the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law since July 2011, resulting in redundancy payments totalling nearly £380,000.
A Surrey spokesman said that staff turnover at the 450-strong faculty had increased because of a restructure of non-academic workers.
Meanwhile, the higher marks recorded were a result of a stronger student intake after entry tariffs were raised and a new law degree structure was adopted.
However, one external examiner said last year that the absence of 2:2s in a commercial law module in which 91 per cent scored a 2:1 or better “represents an unusual mark profile”, papers seen by THE show.
“Our intention is always to ensure that assessment of our students is comparable with that found in other leading UK universities where entry qualifications are similar,” the Surrey spokesman said.
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