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

Memorandum 119

[Manchester Metropolitan University, Mr Cairns submission and correspondence]

Submission from WJ Cairns[386]


    — The author of this submission is critical of the terms of reference of this investigation.— Nevertheless, he hereby presents his evidence to the effect that, not only in his own area, but in most other academic fields of study, there are many forces at work which inevitably lead to a reduction in standards. — These relate mainly to the need to retain student numbers, which if they were allowed to fall because of high failure rates would have dire economic consequences for the institution in general and probably for the individual tutors in particular.

    — The alleged safeguards in place, in the shape of internal and external second assessment, are totally inadequate for the purpose of countering this trend.

    — He illustrates this sorry state of affairs by a case study which is based upon his own experience in organising, teaching and assessing various law courses on the International Business degree at his University.

    — This involved an exercise in distortion of the results which, in the author's view, amounts to blatant cheating.


  1.  Because of the relatively short notice received for the submission of evidence, as well as a combination of heavy teaching, research and administrative duties, my observations are less complete than I would like them to be. However, I was extremely keen to participate in the debate, which is highly necessary even if, as I mention below, the terms of reference on which this inquiry is based are not beyond criticism.

2.  First of all, I wish to state that the framework for this investigation as set by the Committee is extremely unsatisfactory, largely because of its omissions—the most glaring of which relate to (a) course level and content and (b) methods and levels of assessment. Even the headings laid down by the Committee are tightly circumscribed in such a way as to obstruct a thorough examination of the underlying issues.

  3.  Let us take as an example the "Admissions" heading. Here, surely two of the main issues to be examined in the context of the general theme of the inquiry are (a) have admission criteria widened to the point of including students who are not equal to the intellectual challenge of higher education, and (b) have the admissions criteria kept pace with the manner in which the qualifications at secondary education level have evolved, mainly in relation to A levels and GCSEs. In other words, do admissions criteria take account of the possibility that a reduction in standards has also taken place as regards these qualifications, even if nominally they are the same as those which were awarded 20 or 30 years ago?


  4.  To those of us who have been involved in the assessment of law subjects taught at the level of higher education, it is obvious that standards have dropped substantially. This is not only the case, as is generally believed, because of the incidence of course work and of "seen" examination papers. It also has to do with the manner in which the various assessed elements—whether in the form of examinations, tests, essays and other items of coursework—are evaluated and marked. More particularly it relates to a tacit understanding amongst university staff that assessment levels and methods shall be geared mainly, if not exclusively, to the need to retain as many students as possible for the subsequent years and for graduation.

5.  Because this is a tacit understanding it is very difficult, if not totally impossible, to supply hard documentary evidence of any such trend. However, there are a number of indicators and official statements of policy which very much point in that direction. A telling example of this is the requirement, now made of all courses at my University, that assessors should "use the full range of marks". This is a coded way of instructing tutors to include more students in the top evaluation brackets. This does not necessarily involve the distortion and subsequent changing of marks—although this too frequently occurs, as can be seen elsewhere in this paper—but manifests itself in the form of awarding higher marks than before in order to meet target numbers. Any course for which this is not done will face the danger that (a) the throughput to the subsequent years of the course will drop, raising possible question marks over staffing levels and therefore the possibility of redundancies, and (b) the University's authorities, faced with a higher than average failure rate or a lower than average percentage of students in the higher evaluation brackets (ie 2(1) and Firsts), will exercise heavy pressure on the departments concerned to "see the error of their ways".

  6.  This process is also aided and abetted by the "internal market" system. In the vast majority of Universities, individual departments and/or faculties have become "cost centres", in other words, independent budget-holding units. If they teach students outside their departments and/or faculties, they charge the other department and/or faculty for services rendered on the basis of a costing formula known as "FTE" (full-time equivalent"). This means that the department providing the service has every interest in maintaining numbers at a high level—and therefore to be as generous in their marking as possible.

  7.  This is particularly the case with departments which are traditionally felt to be "overstaffed" and whose subjects are on the wane in popularity terms. Languages departments are particularly vulnerable to such pressures. Languages degrees as such are in numerical decline, and ever fewer courses which used to offer the possibility of a combination with languages (eg international/European business studies, Law and French/German/Spanish, etc) are currently inclined to do so. This trend has already caused the closure of several university languages departments (including, devastatingly, at Bradford University, once regarded as a prototype institution for this kind of course). Faced with these dramatic trends, language departments will be extremely reluctant to fail any students—whether on their own degrees or on those which they service.


  8.  It is often maintained that adequate safeguards exist for the maintenance of standards—in the face of the trends mentioned above—in the shape of double marking procedures and the watchful eye exercised by the external examiners. Sadly, this pretension is frequently no more than a snare and a delusion.

9.  In the first place, internal second markers are subject to the same constraints as those facing their colleagues in terms of the need to retain sufficient student numbers for the sake of their own survival. This is the case even where the second markers form part of a different department. They are also subject to the same policy of "using the full range of marks" and therefore will act and mark accordingly. In most cases, the only adjustments made will be upwards, particularly when it comes to second-marking assignments and scripts which the first marker has failed.

  10.  The role of the external examiner is, in principle, supposed to be that of a supervisor and guarantor of certain standards of quality and probity. Sadly, this lofty aspiration is met more in the breach than in the observance because of two main factors. In the first place, many universities have succeeded in severely restricting the scope for action by the external examiner by the manner in which they circumscribe his/her duties in the relevant regulations. In many cases, the external examiner does not monitor the general level of the marks or is given the opportunity to change individual grades, since all he/she is called upon to do is to arbitrate between first and second markers and/or make a decision in borderline cases. (Even within this limited scope their room for manoeuvre is even narrower, since internal examiners are now instructed not to issue borderline marks of 39, 49, 59, etc!)

  11.  However, there is another way in which the external examiner is unable fully to exercise his role as guardian of standards, in that he/she cannot possibly know what has passed between tutor and student prior to the assessment, or the input which the tutor has had in it (in the case of coursework). For it is the worst-kept secret in the academic world that, for unseen examination papers, most tutors provide their students with the contents of the paper beforehand, or at least give them a list of topics from which the questions will be drawn. The role of the external examiner is therefore predicated on an assumption of academic integrity which, for the most part, does not exist.

  12.  However, there is another side to the external examiner's role which connives at the current reduction in academic standards in higher education. At the Board of Examiners, which they are entitled to attend as of right, it will often be they who will pass adverse comment if they feel that internal examiners have been "less than generous". This is particularly the case in relation to first-class degrees. At my own University, this happens very frequently—if I owned a "blue note" for every occasion on which I have heard the words "why don't you give more Firsts" at a board of examiners' meeting I would be a rich man indeed. In fact, external examiners can play an even more insidious role in the present trend of lowering standards—as will be apparent from the case study featured below.


  13.  My experience as a tutor for this course over the entire 20 years of its existence represent a microcosm of all the ills which I have cited in the paragraphs stated above.

14.  My association with this course started when I was a member of the Languages Department of Manchester Metropolitan University (then Manchester Polytechnic) in my capacity of lecturer in law and languages (Law and French/Law and German). Because of a dispute between the course organisers and the then Department of Law, I was called upon to organise and teach, entirely by myself, the Business Law and Comparative Business Law course in Year One, and the EC/EU Law course in Year Two. For the first 10 years, the results were reasonably satisfactory. Even though the level of preparation on the part of the students was generally on the minimal side, and the level of the examination questions was kept as low as possible—even taking account of the fact that these were not specialist law students—the students showed a certain level of commitment and most were able to weather the examination thanks to reasonable preparation. There certainly was no question of "tipping off" the students about the contents of the examination paper, or restricting the examination to certain topics only, as seems to be standard practice in the present-day world of higher education. However, matters have taken a considerable turn for the worse over the past decade.

  15.  During the last 10 years or so, the students have seemed to be increasingly incapable of committing any sizeable piece of information to memory, and to do so in a structured and reasonably grammatical way. This gave rise to increasing levels of low grades and failures and was giving the course organisers a good deal of concern. At a certain point, it was decided to change the entire profile and dimension of the law content of the course. The first-year element was incorporated into a broader course called "Business Environment", to be taught on a wide variety of programmes. The second year course was to stand alone and be called "International Business Law".

  16.  The first-year course came on stream in the academic year 2003-04. Even though the Law questions were straightforward, including as they did such questions as "Describe the conditions for the validity of a contract under English law" and "Explain the relevant of the law of torts to business activity", the results were devastating, with an 85% failure rate. Naturally this caused consternation among the authorities. I was called to a meeting with various Business School course administrators, and subjected to nothing less than a kangaroo court as to why failure rates were so high. At the various boards of examinations that followed, the marks were all increased by 20 (not 20%, but 20 in absolute terms) in order to achieve reasonable pass levels.

  17.  The next year, the Year Two course came into operation. Assessment was based on 30 per cent coursework, 70% unseen examination. Even with the help of a higher average coursework mark, the overall failure rate was 85%, as can be seen from Appendix 1 attached (to the paper version of this submission).[387] These marks were all confirmed by the internal second marker, [***][388] (see Appendix 2). At the preliminary exam board held on 2 June, it was agreed that these marks were very low, but that the verdict of the external examiner was still awaited. The external examiner was [***],[389] a lecturer at [***] who had no recognised expertise in international business law, and whose appointment therefore contravened the relevant QAA rules.

  18.  When [***the external examiner***] provided his report (Appendix 3), he expressed concern at the low level of the marks and suggested—predictably enough—that "the full mark range should be reflected", by increasing the average mark by 10%. However, by some strange turn of events, further discussions took place between the course leaders and [***the external examiner***] (myself not being involved) as a result of which the marks were increased by 20 (once again, not 20% but 20 in absolute terms). The marks, thus increased, were presented to the full Board of Examiners in such a way as not to give the slightest indication as to the manner in which the marks had been altered.

  19.  At the full Board, held on 10 June, I requested that those present should be informed of the true course of events. An explanation was duly given by one of the course leaders, whereupon I expressed my disagreement with such goings-on and left the room. (Contrary to what the Course Leaders later reported (see Appendix 4), I did not level any abuse at the External Examiner—or anyone else for that matter). The Board subsequently confirmed the altered marks (see Appendix 5).

  20.  I subsequently protested about this process in an email addressed to the parties involved, as well as the University Vice Chancellor and Secretary (Appendix 6). As can be seen from Appendices 7, 8, 9 and 10, my objections were overruled—but, in the process, the correspondence in question fully reveals the degree of distortion and downright cheating which had occurred by raising the marks in question. In his final report to the University, the external examiner, who earlier had stated that my own teaching and organisation of the course was not to blame for the high failure rate, completely altered course and suggested, in a manner which can fairly be described as defamatory, that the entire affair was virtually entirely to be blamed on my incompetence (See Appendix 11).

  21.  As a result of this fiasco, the rules were changed. The unseen examination was replaced by a seen examination—the questions remaining as easy as they were in the unseen paper—but still horrendous failure rates were recorded at the first diet of examinations. For the reassessment, an attempt was made by the course leaders to remove me from this process—on this occasion, however, my protests were heeded by the University authorities and I was reinstated. Since then, the examination has been made even easier, with the students even being given the main points to put in their answers! However, I have now been informed that, as from next year, International Business Law is to be axed from the Year Two curriculum...


  22.  The findings of the case study set out under the previous section cannot be dismissed as merely anecdotal evidence, in the light of the general points and issues highlighted under items 1 to 3—which I am confident will be reflected in many other submissions from different institutions. They point to a general and calamitous reduction in academic standards, by means which include downright cheating, across the board which we ignore at our peril.

January 2009

386   School of Law, Manchester Metropolitan University. Back

387   Appendices not printed. Back

388   Details not published. Back

389   Details not published. Back

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