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

Memorandum 51

Submission from the University of Portsmouth


  Our response focuses on two areas:

A:  degree classification, portability, and student plagiarism, and

B:  student support and engagement.

  Key points (A):

    — There is in our judgement considerable potential to propose a standard methodology for degree classification.

    — However, if a standard methodology were established it would be almost meaningless unless agreement about marking scales and the criteria they represent was also reached.

    — The current system of peer group review through the QAA and by use of external examiners provides a good means of maintaining confidence in the standard of degrees.

    — The evidence is that plagiarism is not as widespread as commonly inferred.

    — Universities are increasingly taking on the role of educating plagiarism out of students through addressing deficiencies in basic study skills and particular competences.

  Key points (B):

    — Research is needed to understand the extent, causes and effect of disengagement of students.

    — The reported lower achievement of males and students from BME groups needs to be understood and addressed (as far as possible) through institutional initiatives linked to learning, teaching and assessment strategies.

    — Strategies to ease transition and promote social and academic acculturation, whilst resource intensive do have a positive impact on retention.

    — HEIs are being challenged to support the increasing number of students with severe and complex physical disabilities and mental health problems which require resources beyond that available.

    — More flexible funding regimes that promote a proper credit accumulation and transfer system would permit more students to continue in HE and eventually achieve an award.

A.  Degree classification, confidence in the value of degrees, portability and student plagiarism.

"whether the methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classifications and the distribution of degree classes awarded are appropriate, the potential methodologies for the standardisation of degree classifications within, and between, HEIs, and the effectiveness of the Quality Assurance Agency in monitoring degree standards"

  A.1.  The methodologies used commonly relate to assessment results arising from studies in Year 2 and Year 3 of a three year undergraduate honours programme, levels 5 and 6 respectively of the QAA Framework for Higher Education Qualifications. They are normally based on the use of a formula to determine mean averages of marks from different units or modules. The formulae and the weightings they attribute to different levels and modules vary from institution to institution but they are all trying to calculate a mean average performance. Less commonly there is use of various formulae to try and identify the modal performance.

A.2.  The QAA was until recently recommending that institutions should adopt a common methodology when determining degree classifications. As a result many more institutions than was the case 10 years ago now have something like an institutional standard methodology for classifying degrees. It is not uncommon however for particular disciplinary traditions to hold sway either within an institution or between institutions in the sector.

  A.3.  There is in our judgement considerable potential to propose a standard methodology. However, there is unlikely to be a consensus view within the sector about what the detail of that methodology should be. Academics hold very deep attachments to the particular features of a methodology with which they have become familiar, and come to equate this with both academic standards and their own academic judgement.

  A.4.  In any case, if a standard methodology were established it would be almost meaningless unless agreement about marking scales and the criteria they represent was also reached. This too would be difficult to accomplish because many, both within and outside the HE sector, have chosen to reject the idea of criteria referenced marking as opposed to the use of normative values.

  A.5.  The HE sector has however made progress in agreeing and operating benchmark statements to define the characteristics of particular subjects, and it has accepted (through the QAA Academic Infrastructure) common descriptors to characterise the different levels of learning. It might now, perhaps through the agency of the QAA, agree and operate common criteria to determine the qualities to be associated with first class performance, upper second class performance, lower second class performance, third class performance. It is likely however that these criteria, as with the benchmark statements, would have to be subject-specific.

  A.6.  The use of external examiners in a slightly more systematic and commonly defined way, with perhaps some "independent" scrutiny of the process, could be a more effective means of monitoring degree standards. This could also be done under the aegis of the QAA.

"The advantages and disadvantages of the UK's system of degree classification and the introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record"

  A.7.  The advantage is that the terms used to describe classification have some meaning and some currency both within and without the world of academia. The disadvantage is that many do not like either the meaning or the language, and have come to regard the terms as archaic and divisive.

A.8.  Some means of quickly ranking overall performance however is important both to potential employers and to other educational establishments. In other countries this is often done by a Grade Point Average. However there is no globally-acceptable methodology for that approach either, and similar issues about what the grades mean would have to be resolved.

  A.9.  A transcript of marks is an important supplement to this ranking process which allows a more detailed and informed judgement to be made. To build on the idea of a basic transcript however in the voluminous but loosely prescribed ways required both by the Higher Education Academic Record, and by the Diploma Supplement upon which it is closely modelled, seems to be self defeating, if the purpose is to convey clear information to employers and other educational establishments. We very much doubt whether these documents will ever enjoy any widespread support or demand from employers and other stakeholders.

"The actions that Universities, Government, and others have taken, or should take, to maintain confidence in the value of degrees awarded by Universities in the UK"

  A.10.  The current system of peer group review through the QAA and by use of external examiners is a good means of maintaining confidence in the standard of degrees. Fitness for purpose is well maintained through the processes introduced in the wake of the Dearing Report. External scrutiny of and involvement in curriculum approval runs the risk of undermining the autonomy of UK Universities. This autonomy has in many ways been the most significant factor in establishing the prestige enjoyed by UK Universities.

"The relationships between degree classification and portability"

A.11.  This consideration depends very much on what portability is envisaged. If the portability is an EU issue, as was the argument behind the creation of the Diploma Supplement, then there are many other factors (eg linguistic competence) perhaps more pressing and critical in improving portability of qualifications than the use of a commonly understood ranking of degree outcome. If the portability relates to movement between HEIs in the UK then the establishment of credit frameworks has done much to improve this portability. Degree classification however does not play much part in this because of the issues discussed above about common methodologies and criteria referenced marking.

"The extent to which student plagiarism is a problem in Higher Education, and the availability and effectiveness of strategies to identify, penalise and combat plagiarism"

A.12.  The evidence is that plagiarism is not as widespread as commonly inferred. In our experience it is more a problem of poor, lazy scholarship than it is of any systematic attempt to cheat the system, although there are spectacular examples of the latter and these will always attract adverse comment.

A.13.  Many students come to University lacking the necessary levels of scholarship to tackle the expectations and rigours of University assessment. There is strong evidence of lazy and unquestioning use of primary sources for example or of insufficiently well grounded scientific and mathematical skills. This lack of necessary skills encourages consideration of plagiarism by some students when confronted by the kind of assessment tasks expected of them in an HEI.

  A.14.  Universities increasingly therefore are taking on the role of educating plagiarism out of students through addressing deficiencies in basic study skills and particular competences. This is a role in which HEIS are becoming innovative and increasingly competent, through use of dedicated software or complementary learning activities such as the Maths caf

at the University of Portsmouth.

  A.15.  Educating plagiarism out of students is proving an effective strategy but it incurs a high overhead and eats into the curriculum space which ought to be available for other purposes.

  A.16.  HEIs also have to become more adept at using assessment strategies which in themselves are less vulnerable to the plagiarist. For example HEIs must mix assessment types and not rely too heavily on traditional assessment approaches such as the essay. The questions asked in assessment have to be carefully worded to require evidence of independent thought and individual contribution. Marks can be awarded for activities that require the individual unambiguously to make their own contribution, eg through question and answer at presentations, through use of log books to chart the "construction" of an assessment response, through controlled "in-class" testing, or even through viva voce examinations. This in turn requires a greater focus on the development of academic staff in the use of a variety of assessment approaches.

B.  Student support and engagement

"the effectiveness of initiatives to support student engagement in the formulation of HE policy, and how the success or otherwise of these initiatives is being assessed"


  B.1.  The lack of engagement of students with their studies is reported to be an increasing problem in HE. Although a link between attendance (for full time campus based) of students and attainment is often speculated there is little research to confirm or refute this. Similarly it is suggested that the increased use of e-learning may lead to nonattendance and disengagement of some students :- but again there is little research on this topic. Research is needed to identify the true extent of, and contributing factors to, the problem of disengagement and the impact it has on achievement.

B.2.  Data from our own institution supports national data regarding the experience of males and BME students. Both appear more likely to be excluded and proceed from level to level with "trailing failures" and less likely to achieve a good (1st/2.1) degree and graduate employment (6 months post graduating). Whilst the reasons for this differential achievement are complex with origins well before the students enter HE, institutions nevertheless need to consider their learning, teaching and assessment strategies in the light of the data.

B.3.  Research shows the importance of social and academic acculturation for all students, and particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds. Although resource intensive, effective transition strategies, opportunities for small group teaching, opportunities for collaborative and social learning and the Personal Tutor system all contribute to integration and retention. Our own initiatives to support students through their transition has gained good student feedback and research is underway to determine the impact of this initiative on learning and retention.

  B.4.  A particular challenge facing HE is the number of students with severe and complex disabilities and mental health problems. This can have considerable resource and logistical implications for institutions. Mental health can affect completion in a number of ways:

  B.5.  The move from a supported school/home environment to the independent demands of University academic and social life can be sudden and much more demanding than the student or family or indeed other mental health processionals realise.

  B.6.  The same level of support often cannot be provided (eg one on one daily assistance in the classroom) and there is no-one to monitor the student's capacity to look after themselves on a daily basis.

  B.7.  Mental ill health can by its nature make it difficult for students to be regular and focussed in their studies, and indeed to access the treatment that can be helpful to them.

  B.8.  Some mental health conditions have no known effective "treatment", and in these cases students may struggle for a year or two but withdraw eventually as they are unable to cope and there is nothing further that can be done to support them.

  B.9.  Students suffering from anxiety are very likely to seek postponement or deferral of their formal assessments as they approach them as a direct consequence of their condition. This has clearly damaging progression implications as the number of delayed assessments accumulates and at some stage most such students simply fail to represent themselves and are ultimately recorded as having failed due to being "written off after time".

  B.10.  The University has recognised the problems students may face and introduced a procedure whereby such students are rapidly identified and contacted before the accumulated deficit of work becomes overwhelming. Such students are offered the opportunity to suspend their studies without penalty for as long as they feel it necessary, subject only to the actual continuation of the course. This has two outcomes, either a return to study when able or a managed withdrawal over time without the taint of failure or personal guilt.

  B.11.  It would be even more helpful if the funding for students with mental health needs through the DSA could extend to include counselling for specific learning/mental health difficulties, where this required input beyond what was normally offered.

  B.12.  This year's raising of the non-medical helpers allowance component of the DSA from £12,420 to £20,000 for the explicit purpose of increasing the accessibility of HE for the more severely disabled is welcome but has a corollary impact on the overall institutional financial burden that has not been recognised by additional Institutional funding. Course tuition on a one-to-one basis of very severely disabled candidates may now be necessary as is specific adaptation of Hall residential rooms to meet very specialised needs. Our own institution this year had to install a Parker bath at a cost of over £10,000 as spinal atrophy meant that the normal disabled provision of a wet room and shower chair would not meet the individual need.

  B.13.  More flexible funding regimes that promote a proper credit accumulation and transfer system would permit many students to continue in HE and eventually achieve an award.

December 2008

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