Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 6

Submission from Richard Royle[8]


  The essence of my evidence is that:

    — I have witnessed a steady decline in academic standards since I began lecturing 15 years ago.— One of the major reasons for this decline is the fact that there is virtually no external scrutiny of the grades awarded by Universities.

    — HEFCE/QAA etc. concern themselves merely with the written documentation of the courses.

    — The external examiner system is a sham.

    — There should be some form of external assessment which takes account of subject specialism.


    — I am a senior lecturer in law at the Lancashire Law School, University of Central Lancashire.— I have been lecturing in law, specialising in Land Law and the law of Equity and Trusts, for over 15 years.

    — I have also taught at Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Derby, and the University of Wolverhampton.

    — I have been involved in many course and module validations, and I have been an external examiner.


  3.1  In the time I have been teaching I have witnessed a remarkable decline in academic standards. At many institutions, grades have been inflated, plagiarism is often ignored, and difficult areas of the syllabus are either omitted in their entirety or simply not examined. I also have grave doubts concerning the subject knowledge of some academics who purport to teach the more complex and technical subject areas.

3.2  I think that I should emphasise at the outset that my criticisms do not apply to every academic institution, but such practices do appear to be rife, especially in the newer universities. Fortunately, my own institution has endeavoured to maintain standards.

  3.3  The major reason for the decline in standards is undoubtedly the desire to improve performance figures, reduce retention rates, and improve performance in the league tables. This may be seen as similar to the situation which is faced by many schools, but there is one crucial difference: the absence of external scrutiny makes it far too easy for universities to "cook the books". At least schools have to prepare pupils for an external examination: universities are free to set their own examinations and prepare students accordingly.

  3.4  There is a conspiracy of silence amongst academics. Nobody wishes to be subject to external scrutiny.

  3.5  When I first began teaching, the HEFCE used to inspect courses, an inspection which included both course documentation and teaching on those courses. The assessment was performed by subject specialists. This is never the case today. Each department or faculty assesses the "quality" of its own course, but this assessment is usually merely an examination of the course documentation. There is no genuine external scrutiny. This self- regulation is remarkably similar to that performed by the Financial Services Authority, and we are all now aware of the ineffectiveness of this type of "regulation".

  3.6  In Law, my own subject area, the Law Society and Bar Council also used to take an active role in the scrutiny of undergraduate course delivery, but now those organisations restrict themselves to appearing upon validation boards etc. Only the course documentation is examined.

  3.7  The resulting system is one where the documentation for most courses is excellent, but unfortunately practice does not always match the theory which is propounded in the course documentation.

  3.8  It is not difficult to understand how we have arrived at this state of affairs. Academics are under pressure to improve results, so many make the course as easy as possible for the students and mark student work at the lowest possible standard. There is no external scrutiny, so nobody will know and everybody is happy. The institution is happy because grades improve; the students are happy because they are receiving high marks; and the staff are happy because they receive praise for raising standards!

  3.9  External scrutiny is supposed to be provided by the external examiner system, a procedure which is too often abused. External examiners are often friends of the module leaders and are frequently asked to scrutinise subject areas with which they are unfamiliar. They are not encouraged to pass adverse comments.

  3.10  Despite my comments above, I have experienced some excellent external examiners and I have always taken their advice. I have always altered marks and in accordance with comments made by the external examiner. However, some institutions have a policy of never altering their marks regardless of what the external examiner says. In other words the external examiner is merely there to satisfy the procedural requirements. He may pass comment, but he is impotent, and cannot make any difference in practice. Of course, his comments will be "taken on board" before being ignored.

  3.11  I have just finished my period of office as an external examiner at one University. Within my jurisdiction were the subject areas of Land Law and Equity and Trusts. Throughout my four-year period I had repeatedly passed comment about the standard of the work which was being awarded first class marks, but there was, nevertheless, a steady decline throughout my period of office. I was as gentle as possible with my comments because the role of external examiner is supposed to be that of "critical friend" and I did not want to alienate the teaching staff.

  3.12  I was concerned not only with the standard of marking, but also with the content of the modules, especially the Equity and Trusts module. None of the more modern and difficult areas (tracing, recipient and accessory liability and many areas of constitution) were taught at all. Even the essential area of trustees' powers and duties was not taught. I cannot recall one student at any time throughout my four-year period of office even referring to the Trustee Act 2000. Nothing was done in response to these comments, even though I think that the course was revalidated last year. I have been assured that the matter will be reviewed this year, but, as my period of office has ended, I will never know if it is. I did comment upon last year's Equity examination paper, noting that it avoided any modern areas of law, and could have been adequately answered by a student in 1975! Needless to say, my comments were unacknowledged.

  3.13  Last year I was totally astonished at the poor quality of the answers which were awarded first class marks in the examinations in both Land Law and Equity. Students were awarded a first class mark for work which would be on the borderline of third class and failure at my own institution. The scripts were well written (in terms of English), but demonstrated only a poor grasp of the subject areas.

  3.14  I will try not to go into too much technical detail, but some examples are required. On the Equity paper every year there is a question on secret trusts (which in itself is a rather obscure area, of far less relevance to than many of the omitted areas). This area has been subjected to a great deal of academic commentary and there have been numerous journal articles written upon the subject. Previously, I mentioned that the module leader had awarded first class marks to a student who had not even referred to any of these commentaries. Nothing was done or said about my comments. Last year the same thing happened and a number of students were awarded first class marks for merely describing the requirements for secret trusts. I passed the same comments, but, once again, they were ignored. I was astonished that such superficial answers could be awarded a First Class mark.

  3.15  Far worse was the marking of a question on constructive trusts of land. Upper Second or First Class marks were awarded to students who did not even demonstrate knowledge of the requirements for a constructive trust (there was no mention of common intention) and some students described a resulting trust rather than a constructive trust. These answers would amount to borderline failures at my institution.

  3.16  On the Land Law paper, there was a question on the merits of the land registration system. It does not take an expert in land law to realise that any good answer of this question required some knowledge of unregistered land, but students were awarded very high marks, including one First Class, for writing an essay describing the merits of the Land Registration Act 2002. None of the students mentioned unregistered land at all, even though the question effectively called for a comparison of the two systems. When I mentioned this, one member of staff at the institution said that "we don't do unregistered land". I found this to be truly astonishing. If they did not want the students to talk about unregistered land, why ask a question concerning it? If they chose not to teach registered land either, would a good attempt at "What I did on my holidays" merit a First Class mark in Land Law? Candidates are supposed to answer the question which has been set, not the question which the module leader wishes he had asked, if only he had drafted the question properly.

  3.17  I enclose a copy of the letter which I wrote to the programme co-ordinator. I did not receive a reply until after the assessment board. I could send many more examples.

  3.18  At the assessment board it was made clear to me that the marks would not be changed and that my comments were unwelcome. I thought that this reaction was truly astonishing. I have always been prepared to change my marks if the external examiner disagrees with me, and such disagreements have only ever amounted to a couple of percentage points. Here, the difference in opinion is three whole grades (or approximately 30%—the difference between a bare pass and a comfortable first class mark). I could understand it if there was a compromise, leading to some reduction in the mark, but there was none, not even a token reduction.

  3.19  I do realise that my own marking might be seen as a little on the frugal side and I realise that there can be differing interpretations, but a difference between First Class and borderline failure should never occur.

  3.20  In response I received the usual platitudes about taking the comments of the external examiners very seriously (but obviously not seriously enough to act upon). At no stage did anybody even attempt to address my comments regarding poor knowledge of the subject matter. The reasons for ignoring my comments appear to change as time passes. At the assessment board I was told that members staff mark "according to the cohort"—I am not too sure what this means in this context. I assume that it means that you decide how many first class marks you intend to award and mark accordingly—regardless of how the questions are answered. I was also told that the Land Law and Equity marks were not "out of kilter" with the other marks for this group of students. However, at most institutions they would be "out of kilter"! Land Law and Equity and Trusts are traditionally known as the most difficult areas for students to grasp, and marks are often lower in these subjects. If student performance on a particular paper is so irrelevant, why bother to require students to sit it in the first place? And why have an external examiner if his remarks are totally ignored?

  3.21  When I received the course leader's comments (I can provide a copy of his letter if required), he said that the external examiner is merely "part of the team", and obviously not a very important part. I find this to be truly astonishing. I am a specialist in my subject but my opinion counts for nothing against the module leaders, supported by people who have no knowledge of the subject areas in question. Presumably if a student studying physics at the institution concerned writes an excellent essay about King Lear they should be given a First Class Degree in Physics!

  3.22  I do not find it easy to write this statement about colleagues, and I do in one sense think that I have breached the trust of the people concerned. However, I think that to keep quiet would damage my professional integrity. It is truly shameful of our system of university education that the same piece of work could be awarded a First Class (or even an Upper Second) mark at one institution and be a borderline failure at another. Put another way, law students at my own institution are being disadvantaged because they have to learn the law in order to achieve high marks, whereas students at other institutions receive first class marks for inferior pieces of work. My students and potential employers deserve better.


    — Degree classifications should be comparable between institutions.— External scrutiny is essential, both at the validation stage and afterwards—self regulation leads to abuse.

    — Teaching should be examined by subject specialists.

    — The external examiner system should be replaced.

    — It should be considered whether there should be some assessments which are set (and perhaps even marked) externally—this could be difficult in some of the more obscure subjects, but would be feasible for the more popular courses.

December 2008

8   University of Central Lancashire. Back

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