Upscaling dean claims his actions compensated for disgruntled Swansea staff

Head of Swansea University School of Management also complains about external examiner’s behaviour

August 14, 2014

The head of a management school has defended his decision to upgrade student marks against the advice of external examiners – by claiming that disgruntled staff members had marked down students deliberately in anger at his methods.

Nigel Piercy, dean of Swansea University’s School of Management, made the comments in an email to members of staff after the Western Mail and Swansea student newspaper The Waterfront reported, on 30 July, scathing comments about the “rescaling” of final-year marks in the school’s economics BSc.

In a leaked external examiner’s report, Robin Bladen-Hovell, a professor at Keele University’s Management School, describes the “substantial” upgrading – which saw one student’s mark lifted from 2 to 31 per cent – as a “gross debasing of standards”.

“If I were a cynic, I might be tempted to conclude that [it] is a blatant attempt by the management team to increase league table performance by manipulation of degree outcomes,” he adds.

As Times Higher Education has previously reported, tensions at the school have been raised by increased teaching loads and allegedly aggressive management since Professor Piercy’s arrival in May 2013, while he has told staff that the school is “not a rest home for refugees from the 1960s”.

Professor Piercy writes in an email sent to staff on 4 August: “As a result of the political behaviour of colleagues to attack a legitimate evaluation process in pursuit of their own ends, our students are paying the price.” He says rescaling is a “completely acceptable practice” that is “widely used” elsewhere.

He also claims that Professor Bladen-Hovell has “not published since 2004” and says that his behaviour during the exam board visit “was such that we have written a letter of complaint to his [vice-chancellor]. Using profane language and aggression towards our staff is not acceptable.”

Professor Bladen-Hovell told THE that the comments “appear [to be] an attempt to shore up [Professor Piercy’s] own position by attacking my professional integrity and credibility. [They] reflect very poorly on him and the allegations about my behaviour do not match my recollection of events.” He said Swansea’s registrar, Raymond Ciborowski, had “agreed to pursue the matter”.

On 5 August, Professor Piercy emailed staff to highlight the school’s achievements. Welcoming recent publicity, he adds: “Encouragingly, we even have our own internet trolls now…though I fear they are mainly certain members of our own staff and seemingly one of the PVCs [pro vice-chancellors].”

THE understands that after being tipped off about the rescaling, Swansea’s Teaching and Learning Committee, chaired by Alan Speight, pro vice-chancellor for student experience and academic quality enhancement, vetoed a similar approach to first- and second-year exam scores.

Swansea’s School of Management has since withdrawn its recognition of the committee’s authority and intends to bring a motion of no confidence in Professor Speight at the next university senate meeting in October. Professor Speight did not respond to an invitation to comment.

A spokeswoman for Swansea said: “Decisive action was taken at an early stage to rectify that issue, prior to the receipt of the external examiner’s full report…Scaling adjustments were made in three of 51 final-year undergraduate modules…based on specific circumstances which were made known to the external examiners.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

This sounds so like the financial services sector post-deregulation. Customers suddenly became open to manipulation and truth was massaged in the interest of getting a good sales point. Managers in financial institutions fiddled with figures in order to meet targets. Bosses didn’t care and government didn’t worry if there was a bit of liberty with the truth – it was all presumed to be good for a growing economy in which markets would sort out the good from the bad. And we all know where this short term goal culture got us – the great banking crisis. Fast forward a couple of decades and we now seem to be repeating the excesses of the financial services sector. “Customers” want high grades and a conspiracy of university councils and government seems oblivious to claims of anything being irregular – all of the conspirators benefit from pumping up the grades. That is until they are pumped up so far, like those overblown mortgages until the point where they become worthless. In the new British education environment driven my greed and manipulation, it is the most greedy and devious who will succeed, at least in the short term, and Swansea seems to have a star act in this respect. But just wait a decade, probably less, when British university education is devalued irredeemably, then we will be looking back at those greedy and manipulative managers who put their own self interest before the interests of education. As with the financial services sector, some will blame the greedy ba****ds who took the money and screwed up educational values, while others will blame the system which allowed it to happen. I suspect that Swansea is only notable because it has a Dean (and family) who are very effective and ahead of the game in understanding that for the short-term at least, greed is good and to hell with the truth – nobody cares when all of the figures are heading upwards. I just pity the poor souls who have to work in this environment.
I concur with the previous commentator. I had written before in response to "Has the student voice been tamed?" by Martin McQuillan: "Many asked what went wrong with the banks and why did no employees from within the sector give any warnings of the pending crisis. Yet now that there are plenty of warnings from academics that their system has gone astray (many also published in this venue), not only are we seemingly speaking to deaf ears, but further those of us who hold to our views are being physically expelled under a variety of constructed reasons (the true one - never acknowledged openly - being that we are seen as a problem for the profits of the new class of money makers now ruling the sector)."
The lecturing staff of Swansea University’s School of Management would NOT compromise student grades to 'get back' at the Dean.
Having been an internal examiner for over 40 years, and having acted as an external examiner at a number of UK universities, I find it hard to credit the events taking place at the School of Management, Swansea University. In those years I have never encountered an occasion where low student marks are attributed to the vindictiveness of internal members of staff as retribution against the behaviour of the Head of School (and his son). I know a number of members of faculty at the School of Management and, while some may have a grievance against the senior management of the School, no member of staff is, in my opinion, so trivial and small-minded as to take it out on their students. Neither is it my experience that shifting the complete distribution of exam marks (to the right) is “acceptable” and “common practice”. Certainly, some individual exam marks are adjusted but this is only ever done with good reason. Making such wild claims and accusations simply smacks of a desperate, incompetent, and petulant management. The repercussions of Nigel Piercy’s attack on the external examiner are far more damaging and more far reaching for the School of Management. It is difficult to imagine that any reputable academic would, in the future, be willing to act as an external for any degree programmes run by the School of Management if the Piercy family continue to be in control at the School. I understand that other external examiners for the School’s programmes are currently considering their position. One interesting observation is that on the morning of the THE article, the member of the University’s Senior Management Team with responsibility for the oversight of the School of Management tweeted about the “Great news!” that Swansea was included in the top 20 of the UK universities for student satisfaction. No doubt, Swansea is very highly rated by the student whose exam mark was increased from 2% to 31%. The deafening silence from Swansea University’s Senior Management Team and the University Council suggest a complete failure to address and remedy the situation. It is time for the Welsh academic oversight bodies to intervene and terminate the employment of both Piercys and the member of the SMT with responsibility for the School of Management.

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