Exam failure rates for ethnic minority students at Sheffield University are being investigated by the Commission for Racial Equality.
The commission was alerted to allegations of race discrimination in undergraduate examinations at the medical school by a whistleblower in 1998. "It certainly seems that the failure rate of ethnic minority students... is out of all proportion to their representation among the 180 who presumably took these exams," CRE regional officer Steve Webster wrote in a letter to a complainant. "This suggests, but does not prove, racial discrimination. However, in the case of the obstetrics and gynaecology exams and the paediatrics results, the disproportionate impact of the failure rate on ethnic minority students seems to be a real cause for concern."
Sheffield had faced problems over its medical school's handling of exams after earlier interventions from local MP Roger Allen. In October 1997, the school's undergraduate dean, Bob Page, conceded in a letter to Mr Allen that the university's system of anonymous marking was far from secure. "The system cannot guarantee complete anonymity... any academic member of staff with a will to identify the name of an individual from their registration number could do so."
Mr Page told the MP that a number of factors minimised the chance of discrimination: a range of assessment practices and a number of different exam components meant each candidate was assessed by a wide number of internal examiners; clinical and oral exams were conducted by pairs of examiners who marked candidates separately before coming to a joint decision; and external examiners moderated the results.
But there was no ethnic monitoring. "I am unable to comment on the failure rate of any particular group of students," Mr Page told the MP. "The school does not routinely monitor failure rates based on race, nationality, ethnic origin or gender, but believes the above procedures should ensure that racial bias does not occur."
But Mr Page's answers to Mr Allen did not satisfy the CRE. "(Page) seems to have a belief (possibly divine) that their procedures are fair and free from racial bias," said Mr Webster.
By June 1998, three months after concerns were raised by the CRE, Sheffield agreed to let the CRE monitor exam results. "I have been corresponding with the university over the last two months and it now seems that they are agreeable to monitoring the examination results by ethnic origins, starting from the 1998-99 academic year," Mr Webster said.
This week, the CRE said its investigations at Sheffield were "not yet complete". "Our legal action officer is looking at it and it is still an on-going case," said the CRE's north of England spokeswoman. "Some commitments have been made by Sheffield during our investigations," she added.
Tony Weetman, dean of the medical school, said: "The medical school was invited by the CRE in 1998 to comment on an allegation of racial bias in the examination results for a specific year of the five-year medical course. The university responded immediately by organising an analysis of the following year's examination. In response to this, (the CRE) wrote to the university on June 18 1998 and said: 'In view of your commitment to monitor and evaluate the attainment levels of your students from the next academic year, I am writing to let you know that the commission is unlikely to take any further action on the matter.' "Monitoring of the examination outcomes for the medical course in 1999 revealed no evidence of racial bias in the results; analysis of the year 2000 results will be completed by the university once the final resit examination results are available.
"We invited the CRE to inspect examinations in the medical school in the year 2000, an invitation which they did not take up," Mr Weetman said.
- Want to blow the whistle? Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email him .