Whistleblowers: Journalism staff slated lowering of standards

June 6, 2003

More than half the former teaching staff at Liverpool John Moores University's journalism department were critical of "a general eagerness to avoid failing any student" when they worked there.

In documents submitted to a recent employment tribunal, three former staff of the five-strong department all separately criticised standards on the journalism BA and masters courses.

In a witness statement, lecturer Richard Rudin, who is still at LJMU, said journalism was a money-making "milch cow". He criticised what he saw as former department head Dick Rooney's "keenness to pass everything and everyone - even those who clearly were not meeting the necessary criteria".

Two former staff supported his claims.

The documents were submitted in support of a recent successful claim for unfair dismissal against LJMU by former senior journalism lecturer Des Smith. Although the tribunal did not look specifically at the allegations about academic standards, it found that Dr Smith had been forced to resign by the university's failure to deal adequately with a breakdown of staff relations in the department.

Allegations emerged during 2000 and 2001 over academic standards. There was no suggestion that all the degrees awarded by the journalism department during that period were inflated, and some students did fail courses. But there were concerns that standards at the border between pass and fail were not adhered to in every case.

In a witness statement in May 2002, former journalism lecturer Adrian Quinn - now a lecturer at Liverpool University - said he had resigned in February 2001 partly because he believed Dr Rooney had a "general eagerness to avoid failing any student in the department". Minutes from 2000 seen by The THES record Dr Quinn's "growing concern" that some students may have been given a passing grade as "the default position".

Dr Quinn claimed that Dr Rooney had tried to "bully" him into passing an undergraduate dissertation, and he explained how he supervised the dissertation of a masters student whom he believed was not proficient enough at English to have been admitted on to the course.

Dr Quinn failed the dissertation, noting that the student had been given repeated warnings about poor English and an over-dependence on a limited pool of sources. He said that "almost one-third of the dissertation" read like a book report. When the essay was handed to an external examiner, the negative comments were excluded but positive and mitigating background information was included, which he believed prejudiced the external in the student's favour.

The external told Dr Quinn in an email that she had not received his negative report. "I read it and thought it a poor piece of work but just about passable. However, I'm not sure whether I'm happy to have acted as the decision maker on pass or fail." But Dr Rooney insisted that the external's judgement must stand and rejected Dr Quinn's suggestion that a fourth marker be brought in.

A spokeswoman for LJMU said that the school's management team agreed to keep Dr Quinn's criticisms from the external examiner specifically not to prejudice her. The student had completed all the work required, which was all available for inspection by the external, who agreed with the marks given. No comments were made by the external about the pass mark at the programme assessment board, she said.

Concerns were also voiced about low entry requirements in a memo from Dr Smith to Dr Rooney, when he complained: "I am still astonished that (student's name removed) was allowed on to an MA course in the first place when it would appear from his file in the general office that his highest formal academic qualifications are 3 E grades at A level." The LJMU spokeswoman said that this student was admitted on the grounds of professional experience but had withdrawn from the course. She accused the lecturers of engaging in "vendettas" as part of a "playground fight" and said LJMU "categorically refutes" the "factually incorrect" claims about standards: "All of the workI is seen or made available to external examiners (who) ensure the maintenance of standards and quality across all work submitted for assessment."

Dr Rooney, who left LJMU in September 2001 to work at a university in Papua New Guinea, was unobtainable for comment.

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