Shock, horror. What is the world coming to? A group of researchers from the universities of North London and Surrey have discovered that not every academic gives the same mark for a student's essay. It appears that the lecturers included in their sample agreed on the standards of the essay only half the time. In some instances, an essay was judged by some as a solid 2:1 and by others as a fail.
It is good to read another study that tells us what we have always known. Discrepancies in marking essays have always been the norm in reputable universities. Most graduates recall encountering a Professor Hardnut, who had a reputation for being a tough marker. We have all met a Dr Easymarker, who had a compulsion to be the students' friend. But divergences in assessment practices are not all down to the arbitrary inclinations of feckless academics. It is inevitable that in a free and open university system, lecturers will pursue diverse strategies towards teaching and assessment. Some academics emphasise the virtues of diligence and effort. Others focus on the issue of analytic clarity. Many of my colleagues are indifferent to the matter of presentation; others are wholly obsessed by it.
Academics, certainly in the humanities and social sciences, develop their pedagogic style around their interpretation of the subject matter and therefore end up rewarding and penalising students in line with their adopted approach.
I am not at all worried that we do not give students identical marks for their essays. I am more concerned that individual differences in marking style are reinforced by contrasting institutional pressures. Everyone knows that it is far easier to receive a first in some universities than in others. Institutions that are dominated by the new managerialism are far more likely to embrace the values of grade inflation than those that still believe that you have to do more than show up to gain a 2:1 on your essay. And since the prospect of relatively high grades is seen as likely to assist student recruitment, many academics are under pressure to mark more generously. Paradoxically, it is the introduction of new bureaucratic systems of auditing, ostensibly designed to enforce institutional accountability, that is responsible for intensifying differences in marking styles. As high grades become associated with good practice, marking becomes subject to influences that have little bearing on the content of students' work.
In the past, the system of external examiners ensured that standards were protected from arbitrary practices that were unfair for students. But since this system is facing considerable pressure, there is a danger that the role of the external will become compromised. Regrettably, the authors of the report appear to discount the role of the system of external examiners in protecting the integrity of the assessment process. One of the authors of the study was reported as stating that the "external examiner is only another somewhat subjective academic giving their view".
Of course, if academics were not subjective they would not be academics. It is difficult to develop ideas and pursue intellectual clarity without the exercise of a modicum of subjectivity. Maybe we should hand over the process of assessment to qualified technicians and trainers. If we want to eradicate subjectivity entirely from the way students are assessed, we should get students to tick boxes and answer multiple-choice questions.
The belief that there is something intrinsically undesirable in academics adopting a different approach to marking essays is symptomatic of the managerial ethos that prevails in higher education. Consistency may well be useful for bureaucratic calculation but it will lead to the diminishing of intellectual diversity and the transmission of creative thought. It will also discourage academics from asking awkward questions of their students.
Professor of sociology
University of Kent at Canterbury