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


Memorandum 120

Submission from Susan Evans, [393]

SUMMARY

  I describe below some of the practices and procedures that, I believe, have resulted in the devaluation of degrees. I believe some students, from their university experience, also feel that degrees have been devalued. Last week a student (from Slovakia) said to me that this university is like high school in Slovakia and that universities in Slovakia are of a higher standard than the UK, another commented as part of a degree review "students who can't do maths shouldn't do Economics. Don't dumb down the subject any more than you already have!"

All the information given below relates to work in an Economics department.

More information relating to the following issues can be provide if required.

1.  Pressure on staff in relation to marks awarded

  I feel under continual pressure in relation to marks I award to students. One example of the kind of pressure exerted occurred in 1997 when a member of the management claimed that there had been a complaint (this was untrue) about my marking of a test on a third year unit. He tried to make me remark it in accordance with a marking scheme he devised that would have increased the lowest marks and potentially reduced the highest marks. He had never seen the test and had no specialist knowledge of the subject area. I did not remark it but offered to refer the matter to the External Examiner, an offer ignored by management. I was subsequently removed from this unit, my specialist area. Another example of management action in relation to a unit where some students attained low marks is given below. A member of staff was subsequently removed from teaching on the unit, his specialist area.

In the summer of 2004, between the announcement of degree results and the awards ceremony, the Examination Board for Economics was reconvened. Staff understood this was to discuss a third year unit, however, at the start of the meeting the Chairman announced that a new set of marks was to be assigned to this unit and allowed no discussion of this matter. He only reluctantly, when asked, provided the Board with the new marks assigned to the 24 students who had studied the unit. However, he read them out so fast that I was unable to record them (it was a week before I managed to acquire all the marks). The Board lasted about ten minutes and as it was ending I commented that I considered the conduct of this Board was a threat to academic standards. I asked for this comment to be recorded in the minutes, with my name. In my experience (26 years in higher education) it was unprecedented for a Board of Examiners to be conducted in this way. The staff who taught the unit and marked the scripts were not consulted on the mark changes and the new marks (given below) bore no relation to the academic achievements of the students on the course. They also completely changed the students' ranking. It was unclear how these new marks had been determined.



Student
Assessed work (%)
Exam (%)
Overall mark* (%)
New Mark +
Position in distribution

old
new
A
23
7
11
49
24
13
B
50
9
19
38
23
23
C
30
18
21
39
22
21
D
34
16
21
46
21
16
E
18
26
24
56
19
8
F
26
23
24
50
19
12
G
30
23
25
39
18
21
H
46
19
26
41
17
18
I
43
23
28
53
14
11
J
36
25
28
43
14
17
K
52
20
28
40
14
20
L
65
19
31
41
12
18
M
45
26
31
37
12
24
N
21
36
32
54
11
10
O
43
33
36
59
10
5
P
35
39
38
48
9
14
Q
40
43
42
47
8
15
R
52
43
45
55
7
9
S
60
55
56
61
6
3
T
62
56
57
65
3
1
U
49
60
57
57
3
6
V
60
56
57
57
3
6
W
57
62
61
64
2
2
X
60
63
62
63
1
3

*  Mark agreed at Board of Examiners on 8 June 2004.
+  New mark assigned at the reconvened Board held on 1 July 2004.


  Consequent on these mark changes nine students who at the original Board were not awarded a degree, received a degree in July 2004.

  I contacted the Academic Registrar about the way this Board had been conducted. When I eventually got a response, it referred me back to the Board Chairman. It was over ten weeks after the Board before staff received the minutes which misrepresented what had occurred. My comment was recorded as if it had been part of a discussion, and was anonymous despite my request. I objected to the minutes as incorrect. No member of staff present at the reconvened Board disagreed that my comment was made at the end of the meeting, but the Secretary did not produce an amended set of minutes. She also refused to allow me to be named in the minutes. Consequently no correct record of the meeting exists. The amendment was noted in the minutes of the subsequent Board and when staff received these minutes nine months later the agreed amendment was not recorded correctly. A correction to it was therefore noted in the minutes of a Board held nearly a year after the reconvened Board had met. Since July 2004 all Examination Boards in the Economics Department have been recorded on tape. However, when I asked for a copy of the recording of one such meeting the Chairman refused to provide it.

2.  Progression of students who achieve a mark of less than 35% in a unit

  Under University regulations applying in 2003-4 to 2005-6 first and second year students could not be compensated in a unit where the aggregate mark was less than 35%. However students in this situation were allowed to progress (i. e. were compensated). Numbers are given below.

September 2004

Four students with marks between 21% and 30% progressed to year 2.

September 2005

Eleven students with marks between 16% and 33% progressed to year 2.

Eight students with marks between 22% and 34% progressed to year 3.

September 2006

  Seventeen students with marks between of 14% and33% progressed to year 2.

3.  Appeals

Until the early 1990's I can only recall one appeal and the Examination Board was reconvened to consider it. Since then the number has escalated. They are dealt with under Chairman's action. However the Board Chairman provides Board members with no information about the grounds of an appeal or the reasons for his decision on it. In 2007-8 two decisions of the Summer Board were changed without the students even following the Appeals procedure. My understanding is that University regulations do not permit this. I understand that the University has not collated data on the number of appeals and decisions taken under Chairman's action.

NUMBER OF APPEALS 2001-02/2004-05


2001-02
2002-03
2003-04
2004-05
No
Upheld
No
Upheld
No
Upheld
No
Upheld

Summer
3
3
7
4
9
5
15
10
September
3
3
10
8
2
1
5
4
Total
6
6
(100%)
17
12
(71%)
11
6
(54%)
20
14
(70%)


Appeals upheld resulted in, for example, students progressing to the following year rather than resitting, or a higher degree classification. In 2002-3 a second year student who had obtained 2% in a unit where they attended 21% of tutorials was allowed to progress to the third year.

4.  Changes in Examination regulations

In 2007-8 a new method to determine a student's degree classification was introduced. For all students in Economics the degree classification that this new method yielded was at least as high as under the previous method. For five students a higher degree classification resulted.

5.  Assessment- information available to students

Students are sometimes given detailed information about questions on "unseen" examination papers. For example in the academic session 2007-8 on one unit they were told to revise "The choice between consumption and savings using indifference analysis; income and substitution effects; savers and borrowers. The question on this topic was:

    (a) Explain how indifference analysis may be applied to an individual's choice between consumption and saving.

    (b) Examine how the impact of a change in the interest rate differs between a saver and a borrower.

  In some statistics assessments students are allowed to bring any material they like to the assessment. These assessments are not described in the unit outline as "open book".

  In a computer based statistics assessment that I invigilated the lecturer had already put some of the questions, together with the answers, on a common drive. Students could access the answers during the assessment and copy them into the document that they submitted for marking.

  In the past no assessments in mathematics or statistics units were "open book" assessments.

6.  Attendance

  In the past there were attendance requirements, students who did not meet them were withdrawn from the course and their local authority informed. Now, apparently, there is no attendance requirement, at least not in the Economics Department, and I have been told that students cannot be withdrawn without their agreement, irrespective of their attendance. Average attendance at first year tutorials (approximately 80 students) in a mathematics/statistics unit from 2002-3 to 2007-8 was between 45% and 55%. On a second year unit in 2007-8 attendance at lectures was 61% and at tutorials, 35%.

7.  Examples of tutorial work and assessments given in 1996-97 and 2007-08

In 1996-7 and 2007-8 all students (note: some are enrolled on BSc degrees) in the Economics Department had to take a first year unit in mathematics/statistics. The structure of the unit differed between the two years, in particular in 1996-7 there were two parallel units running, one harder than the other. The material given relates to the harder unit but if the students who took the harder unit in 1996-7 had enrolled in 2007-8 they would have been given the material below.

THE FIRST AND LAST QUESTIONS ON THE FIRST TUTORIAL SHEET



THE FIRST ASSESSMENT (TAKEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AUTUMN TERM)







8.  Performance of students who were educated outside the UK prior to entering university

  It has become apparent that the students with the best technical skills have often been educated outside the UK prior to entering university. The following information relates to a first year mathematics/statistics unit.


2007-08
2006-07
2005-06
2004-05
UK
Non UK
UK
Non UK
UK
Non UK
UK
Non UK

Number
78
17
71
16
83
24
81
35
Average
39%
51%
43%
59%
32%
40%
24%
39%
Pass rate
53%
(41/78)
76%
(13/17)
61%
(43/71)
94%
(15/16)
40%
(33/83)
63%
(17/24)
19%
(15/81)
51%
(18/35)

Top 2 students non-UK educated
Top 2 students and 4 in the top 6 non-UK educated
4 of the top 5 students non-UK educated
Top 2 students non-UK educated


9.  Admissions

I am concerned about admissions procedures for students who do not apply through UCAS Some are admitted without providing referees and even if the name of a referee is given references are rarely taken up. Applicants who were in an educational institution the previous year often do not give the name of an academic referee. Students have been accepted as direct entrants into the second year when they have not passed a university first year and I am aware of one student who had not passed the second year of a degree and was accepted on the third year. Students who have not passed the Foundation Year have been are taken onto the first year (in the cases of which I am aware they failed the first year). Students whose first language is not English often do not have the required IELTS qualification or equivalent. About 30% of the students are now admitted do not have "A" levels.

10.  Final comments

I have raised many of the above issues, and others, for example financial issues, with the higher management. Often they do not respond. If there is a response it invariably supports the actions of management. I consider that there are serious issues of accountability in universities.

It is claimed, by some, that the system of External Examiners has maintained standards. In my view it is under the aegis of this system that standards have fallen.

December 2008







393   Manchester Metropolitan University Back


 
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