Phil Baty reports on reactions to an NUS campaign for anonymous coursework assessment.
A loss of trust and intimacy between lecturers and their students is undermining the quality of university teaching, academics complained this week.
The concerns were raised as the National Union of Students confirmed that it would be launching a campaign to persuade all universities to extend anonymous marking, already common for examinations, to include essays and other coursework from next term. They say it is essential to prevent bias by staff.
Some academics warned that anonymous marking of coursework, already being adopted in universities, is depersonalising teaching, preventing students from receiving tailored and meaningful feedback and preventing the identification of problems such as plagiarism.
"Students should be assessed by lecturers who know their students as intimately as possible," said George MacDonald Ross, director of the Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies at the Higher Education Academy and a senior lecturer at Leeds University.
"The student union believes that lecturers can't be trusted to mark their students fairly if they know who they are. It seems that lack of trust bedevils both sides."
Leeds University introduced a revised policy on anonymous marking this academic year which states that "all coursework that contributes to the final grade for any module at any level shall be marked anonymously, wherever possible".
Dr MacDonald Ross said he was pleased that there was a "let-out clause", which allowed exceptions, as long as they were justified and made clear to students, and the university said that there had been "widespread support" for the policy.
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said: "I can live with anonymous marking of exams. However, when it comes to coursework it is a different matter.
"Coursework takes place in the context of a relationship that informs expectations and the assessment of outcome. In a sense the marking of an essay represents the continuation of that relationship."
Anonymous marking "undermines both the relationship and the effectiveness of a teacher to provide guidance and feedback", he added.
Jon Appleton, assistant academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, told a recent e-mail discussion forum that there was research showing that lecturers marked students according to their expectations. So if they thought they were dealing with a first-class student they would be more inclined to mark highly, irrespective of the quality of the work.
"I'm not clear that knowing the students makes for genuinely fair marking," he said.
"But the key issue is whether such a situation is possible in the higher education world of 2007 other than somewhere with the resources of Oxford or Cambridge. For the rest of us, a solution that relies on lecturers knowing every one of their students intimately is no solution at all."
Wes Streeting, vice-president (education) at the NUS, said: "The anonymous marking of coursework is patchy - both across the UK and within institutions.
"If we lived in a perfect world, students would be able to put their name on their coursework. Students would not have to fear that their work would be marked any differently based on their gender, sexuality or race.
Unfortunately we don't live in that world."
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies is also lobbying for anonymous marking to guard against "discrimination on the basis of someone's name".
The Quality Assurance Agency leaves the decision up to institutions, suggesting in its code of practice only that "institutions may wish to consider the circumstances in which anonymous marking is appropriate and when it is either not practical or inappropriate".
Rhys Williams, pro vice-chancellor (academic) at Swansea University, said that Swansea had introduced anonymous marking for both exams and coursework in 2000, partly on the ground that there was a growing body of research showing that female students did worse under the open system.
"There is still room for the personal touch. We are only talking about summative assessment, which leads toward the final degree mark. There are still lots of forms of formative assessment where personal feedback is given," he said.
CAN YOU BE TRUSTED TO MARK FAIRLY?
Steve Newstead, deputy vice-chancellor, Plymouth University, has carried out research on gender bias in marking.
"There have been claims that markers tend to mark males more extremely (both higher and lower) than females because of stereotypical bias. The evidence we collected in the 1990s suggested that this bias may no longer exist. We also found no differences in any such bias between institutions using and not using blind marking.
"In favour of blind marking is that it gives students reassurances that biases don't exist - and there are other potential biases, for example based on ethnic origin. On the negative side is anecdotal evidence that blind marking may tend in some circumstances to be more severe than non-blind marking.
"There is also the issue as to whether truly blind marking exists, since markers may identify individual students' handwriting and can sex-type handwriting with about 70 per cent accuracy."