Teesside dean criticised for email guidance on 'maximising performance'

A university has defended a senior manager who encouraged staff to improve student-completion rates by resubmitting work, giving "generous" deadline extensions and passing assignments before they had been seen by external examiners.

May 31, 2012

In an email sent to staff at Teesside University's School of Computing on 20 April and passed to Times Higher Education, Alison Johnson, assistant dean for quality, learning and teaching at the school, sets out guidance on "maximising student performance".

"Resubmission is continuing to have an impact on our results - please do continue with this practice where it is achievable," she writes.

Ms Johnson writes that Teesside has been "much more generous with extensions" and tells staff to continue this to "maximise completion".

If students complete their work late but assessors know it will pass, "pass them now", she advises. It is understood that this refers to work that has been marked and moderated internally but not yet checked by external examiners.

Late work would be eligible to achieve only a pass mark, "but by ratifying marks now [this] can make a difference to the student's progression or award status", she says.

Ms Johnson also tells staff not to suggest to students that they withdraw from or suspend their studies in order to retry the following year.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Teesside said that the advice is within university regulations. These rules allow "for extensions for transparent and genuine reasons and [are] a framework which staff are fully aware of".

She said that the email "assumes implicit knowledge" about when it is appropriate to grant extensions or resubmit work. "We have clear and robust policies in place to ensure a high and consistent standard of assessment," she added.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history and politics at the University of Buckingham and a long-standing critic of perceived pressure on academics to award high marks, said that it was the "height of cynicism" to increase completion rates by being "generous" with deadlines.

"The point of a deadline is that students must learn to complete an assignment within an allotted period. This is - inter alia - preparation for the world of work," he said.

"This kind of pressure is becoming more commonplace."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, argued that under the government's new competitive funding system, courses with low pass rates were unlikely to be popular. As a result, "we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure there's no grade inflation simply to ensure requisite numbers succeed on a course", she said.

"Staff, as ever, will defend the integrity of courses and the quality of degrees, but institutions must not put undue pressure on them," Ms Hunt added.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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