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‘Dumbing down’ in degrees across England

Degree classifications are failing to accurately describe students’ academic achievements claims a new report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee. An inquiry on higher education has received claims of examiners encourage to award higher than appropriate marks, of ‘failing quality controls’ and ‘apathetic’ students, while the Higher Education Statistics Agency continue to record year on year increases in the number of students achieving first-class and upper-second (2:1) degrees.

Last week the Times Higher Education magazine reported that all students on a law course at Manchester Metropolitan University had their marks raised by 10% (an increase of 20 marks) after 85% of students had initially failed the 2nd year law module. Mr Walter Cairns, the tutor and original examiner for the course, revealed this decision to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee. He also informed by committee that this unusual adjustment to the marking of the course was made in two consecutive academic years, 2004/05 and 2003/04. The decision was made after a second external examiner agreed that, “the examiner (Mr Cairns) is correct in assessing the placement of students in relation to each other” but said “the overall range would be better reflected if marks across the board were increased by 10 per cent. This would not allow those who deserve a fail mark to pass.”

Sue Evans, Economics lecturer at Manchester Met, has also claimed that work for first-year students has become easier and her submission to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee reported an increase in the number of ‘compensated passes’ being awarded. ‘Compensated passes’ allow students who had failed a course to continue their studies the following year. Details revealed by Evans stated that 8 students who had achieved marks of between 22% and 34%, in the academic year 2004/05 being allowed to progress to their third year.

And it appears that it is not just Manchester Met that faces accusations. External examiner and senior lecturer at the Law School at the University of Central Lancashire Richard Royle has stated that firsts were consistently awarded for work, which only warranted third class marks or in some cases should have been failed. After working as an external examiner for the unnamed institution for four years, Royle told of his “astonishment” of consistently poor quality work produced by students. Royle voiced his concern about the inadequate standard of teaching and inappropriate marking of the course in letters to the course co-ordinator but commented that “At the assessment board, it was made clear to me that the marks would not be changed and that my comments were unwelcome”.

A record figure of 1 in 8 graduates achieved first-class degrees in Britain last year and 61% of all graduates were awarded a first-class or upper-second degree. Compared with 48% students in 1995/96, this figure reflects a huge increase in the number of students highly graded degrees. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee has commented that it is this year on year improvement in grades which has “led to allegations of ‘degree inflation’ and… contributed to an undermining of confidence in the degree classification system”.

Sussex’s 2007 and 2008 graduates topped the national averages for top class degrees received last year, when 17.3% of graduates received a first-class degree and 62.6% received upper-second degrees. A spokesperson for the university told The Badger “The proportion of firsts and 2-1s awarded by the University of Sussex is reasonably typical for universities of a similar type – the smaller, campus-based research universities, which have a higher quality student intake than the average… The most recent QAA audit of Sussex was completed in May 2008 and it concluded that “confidence can be placed in the soundness of the institution’s current and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards”, which is the highest rating that can be achieved.”

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