Tick yes to raise the standard

May 25, 2007

Standardised marking will be no fairer than what we have now and will lead to a grading system that discounts individuals' achievements, Frank Furedi argues

As most experienced academics in the social sciences and humanities know, marking is not an exact science. Even with the most rigorous guidelines, the marks we give are influenced at least in part by a variety of arbitrary factors including our mood, subjective inclinations and discretion. There are and there will always be variations in the way individual colleagues assess an exam and in disciplinary and institutional cultures of marking.

There is no reason why these differences should violate the norms of fairness or fail to provide a clear indication of performance. Most intelligent people understand that a student who is awarded 68 per cent on her English essay is not necessarily less able than someone who got 97 per cent on a maths quiz.

I have never been sympathetic to the periodic demands for consistency in marking students. Such demands are the inevitable consequence of the imperative towards the standardisation and homogenisation of higher education. But diversity in higher education is essential for the development of a lively and innovative academic life. Course convenors are entitled to have distinct and even idiosyncratic expectations of their students. Disciplines have different traditions of teaching and engaging with their subject matter, which is why the meaning of being "right" in mathematics has little application in my own discipline of sociology.

From a bureaucratic standpoint, such diversity of expectation represents a scandal. Not surprisingly, the Quality Assurance Agency has waded in with a report that criticises the fact that graduates' degree classes are not comparable between universities or disciplines. In a report published last month, the QAA called for a system that was "more reliable, robust, fair and transparent". The QAA report is based on the assumption that there is something wrong with the fact that universities and disciplines measure and reward their students differentially and that inconsistency is synonymous with unfairness. From the standpoint of the auditor, this orientation towards the standardisation of academic life makes sense. However, as long as academics are allowed to exercise a modicum of professional discretion there will always be inconsistency.

Despite its name, the QAA appears to have an unerring instinct for eroding the quality of higher education. Its call for a more "reliable" and "transparent" system of assessment can only have the effect of detaching the process of marking from its specific disciplinary and institutional context. In such circumstances, the process of marking, rather than the experience of assessing students' contribution, would have a privileged status. Expect more school-type quizzes, yes-and-no questionnaires and multiple-choice exams.

In many universities, there is already pressure on staff to fall in line with the demands of consistency. This demand to mark in accordance with externally imposed criteria can only encourage the transformation of our existing imperfect system into an exercise in bureaucratic form-filling.

That will mean that degree awards are likely to tell us as much about the expectation of the new "more reliable, robust, fair and transparent system"

as it does about the achievement of our students. And, on balance, it will have even less meaning than our existing "inconsistent" system.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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