Degree marking system set for overhaul

A big overhaul of degree marking was announced by vice chancellors yesterday (thus) in answer to a scathing MPs’ report which found no consistency of standards between subjects, departments or universities.

The shake-up will please government ministers who have been concerned at complaints about uneven marking and complacency in British universities. Announcing an inquiry into the system of external examiners, Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said that the review was needed to ensure the system was robust.

“We are committed to taking an open and sensible approach to public concerns,” he said. “Where there is evidence of a problem, we will lead the way in making proportionate improvements. But we also need to explain ourselves better. Above all, we must show that we can continue to be the stewards of high quality and high standards: that we deserve our autonomy so that it does not become a casualty of those concerns.”

The select committee report on university standards published in August said it was unacceptable that higher education received £15bn of public money but was unable to answer straightforward questions about the worth of degrees at different universities. It also found that the proportion of students awarded a first class degree rose from 7.7 per cent in 1996-97 to 13.3 per cent in 2007-08 and concluded that different levels of effort were required in different universities to obtain similar degrees.

Speaking at the Universities UK conference in Edinburgh yesterday, higher education minister David Lammy said universities had to be open as well as rigorous. “Learners need to know up front what their courses will involve, how much teaching they’ll get, how much independent learning is expected, and how they’ll be assessed,” he said.

Under the external examiner system, exam papers on all courses are double-marked by an academic from another university. The criticism is that professors choose their mates to do the job and that a cosy, old boy’s club of friends develops with people acting as external examiners for one another’s departments. Allegations have been made of external examiners being leaned on to go soft on students’ work when it is not of high enough quality.

This move came on the day it was revealed that students at the universities of Kent and Northampton are receiving marks simply for turning up to seminars. Professor Smith said this was nothing new and that he had received marks for this reason on a course on which he was enrolled in the 1970s. It was to ensure that students didn’t miss all classes and simply turn up for the exam, he said.

At yesterday’s conference universities were told they would have to tighten their belts and find more funding from the private sector and endowments because they had been living through a golden age and money would be tight from now on. The government is looking at making universities bid for a higher portion of their funds in relation to how much they are contributing to the economy, said Mr Lammy. This could mean more winners and losers in the university world and humanities subjects taking a hit. Mr Lammy refused to be drawn further on this.

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