Whistleblowers: Exam 'chaos' queried

October 26, 2001

Exam-room chaos, erroneous exam papers and cheating appear to be blighting students' progress at Wolverhampton University, according to responses to a student's complaint seen by The THES .

Mike Austen, a 54-year-old former airline pilot who enrolled last year on a full-time law degree course at Wolverhampton, submitted a catalogue of complaints to his head of department in June.

Of particular concern were his experiences during an assessment on an information technology course. He said that students who had nothing to do with the exam were wandering in and out of the computer laboratory, ignoring signs that said: "Exams in Progress, Keep Out", and chatting.

He said that some students who were using computer terminals but who had nothing to do with the exam refused to leave the room when asked to by the invigilator.

Mike Jackson, professor of data engineering, said in a letter to Mr Austen:

"We accept that there is a certain amount of disruption in the module caused by students walking through the laboratory."

The layout of the building meant the easiest route to one laboratory was through another: the exam room. The stream of students could have been stopped by sending them via an alternative route. But Professor Jackson said that the route, which involves walking up a flight of stairs and down a corridor, "is a little difficult to explain to students from other parts of the university".

Nor was there much to be done about other students using the computer laboratory during exams, he said, as resisting the students could put staff in danger.

Professor Jackson said: "We also accept that some students refuse to relinquish machines in the classes. I cannot, however, recommend to staff that they forcibly eject such students as... there have been a number of cases of violent and abusive behaviour directed at lecturing staff who insist on students vacating the room."

Mr Austen was also concerned about cheating. Students routinely ignored instructions to stop working at the end of timed exams, he said. Professor Jackson said: "I can say that the school of computing is very aware of the problem... the school will report and process more cases than any other school in the university this year."

Complaints relating to errors in exam papers in other law school assessment units, which Mr Austen said caused confusion and forced invigilators to interrupt exams, were dealt with by Jim Clevenger, the senior programme manager in the law school. "Given the pressures of time and other work, some errors do creep through," he said. The department was also forced to apologise for a delay to a law exam as too few exam papers were available to students.

With regard to a number of other concerns raised by Mr Austen, Professor Clevenger said: "I do not believe the situations you are concerned about require an urgent answer."

To Mr Austen's dismay, Professor Clevenger said he had circulated the complaint in a bid to raise responses from relevant staff in the legal studies and information technology schools.

Last month, Mr Austen formalised his complaint, adding allegations that the first complaints were not properly dealt with and that he has since been victimised.

The university said this week: "We are aware of this complaint and the matter is actively being dealt with through the established internal procedures. It would be inappropriate to make any further comment on an individual case, other than that the university is committed to high-quality educational assessments and processes. This commitment is regularly reinforced by peer examination through processes such as the QAA reviews and the external examiners' work."

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