V-c's 'plea for firsts' fuels quality fears

June 30, 2000

A vice-chancellor has been accused of pressurising external examiners to award more first-class honours degrees to his students, increasing fears that competition among universities is artificially inflating exam results.

Ron Cooke, vice-chancellor of the University of York, wrote to all the university's external examiners for undergraduate courses earlier this month. He asked them to consider York's spread of degree results, subject by subject, in the light of a comparison with institutions in the elite Russell Group and the "94 Group" of research-led universities.

While York maintains that the letter was "entirely appropriate", critics have warned that it risks compromising the independence of York's external examiners and their stewardship of degree standards.

Professor Cooke provided the examiners with data on economics degrees that showed that York's position as the fourth most generous distributor of firsts (14.4 per cent) had slipped in a year to 12th (8.7 per cent). He asked: "Do the present methods of classification work effectively in producing the distribution that might be expected on the basis of the relatively high entry standards and the quality of teaching and learning experience? Does the distribution of results accurately reflect the achievements of students?" The data also showed a shift from 38.16 per cent 2:1s, to 56.52 per cent the following year.

Geoffrey Alderman, co-author of last year's study into "dumbing down" in higher education, said that the letter was "odd" and "insulting" to external examiners.

Professor Alderman, former pro vice-chancellor for quality and standards at Middlesex University, said: "This is all of a piece with the evidence Mantz Yorke (professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University) and I uncovered in our investigation of dumbing down. This showed that pressure was being applied to externals in old universities, fearful of slipping in the league tables and losing out on student progression and achievement in the teaching quality assessments."

Another quality assurance expert, who did not want to be named, said it could be inferred that the letter was an improper coded plea to the externals to "lighten up".

Professor Cooke said: "A number of subject review teams have commented on the distribution of degree classifications at York. The evidence is that the standard of students' achievements is favourable in comparison with students on similar programmes elsewhere."

The question of degree classification has become increasingly pressing with intensifying competition for students and the growth of newspaper university league tables. In his letter, Professor Cooke said that his "main concern" was "to ensure that our standards and procedures are closely comparable with those of our main comparators and that our students should not be at a disadvantage if their achievements are of comparable quality".

Students are attracted to courses that offer a higher chance of a first-class degree, and subject reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency look specifically at achievement. Both factors increase the incentive for grade inflation.

Classification spread can be altered not only through generosity, but also by the method of calculation. A study by Harvey Woolf of Wolverhampton University revealed dramatic variations in the methods used to determine degree class. Putting the same set of exam results through different universities' systems, he found variations of up to 15 per cent.

Professor Cooke said this week: "The university is aware that a variety of factors influences final classifications, including modular structure, assessment methods used, mechanisms for calculating classifications and so forth. It has therefore asked external examiners to consider detailed matters concerning assessment practices in relation to the resulting distribution of degree classification."

Peter Griffiths, head of the Quality Development Centre at Cheltenham and Gloucester College and a member of the QAA working group that earlier this year published the code of practice on external examiners, said that degree standards would collapse without independent external examiners.

Grading letter, page 17

Top nine awarders

1997-98

Institution Firsts/2:1s (%)

Cambridge 87

Oxford 79

St Andrews 76

Edinburgh 75

Nottingham 74

Bristol 73

Glasgow 72

Bath 70

LSE 70

York lies joint 29th

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