‘If a student performs very strongly in most criteria, but their work contains grammatical errors, a first should be awarded,’ UEA’s Dr Adam Longcroft (pictured above).
A top university has been accused of leaning on academics to give students more top degrees – boosting its ranking in league tables against competitors.
An internal document from the University of East Anglia – which charges fees of £9,000 a year – states: ‘To put it bluntly, too few students are being awarded 2:1s and firsts.’
Dr Adam Longcroft, academic director of taught programmes, adds the university’s ‘Good Honours statistics fall behind those of its close competitors’ partly because the ‘marking culture’ was characterised by ‘conservatism’ and ‘timidity’.
He argues that basic grammatical errors should not kill off a chance of a top grade.
The report – the basis for new marking guidance introduced last summer – was obtained by The Mail on Sunday under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the 2012 document, Dr Longcroft said some academics had an ‘odd’ view of a first and seemed to think that students should be ‘verging on genius’ to be awarded one.
He went on to criticise the approach of academics ‘who argued that small grammatical errors should preclude the award of a first class mark’ and said that this would particularly disadvantage international students with weak English.
‘If a student performs very strongly in most of the criteria, but their work contains grammatical errors, a first mark can and should be awarded,’ he instructed.
He added: ‘This isn’t about ‘dumbing down’ – far from it. Rather, it is about rewarding excellent work with high marks – and giving credit where credit is due.’
The document will fuel criticism that universities are undermining the credibility of degrees so they can push themselves up the results league tables – a key tool to market themselves to students.
The revelation comes after the number of firsts and 2:1s gained by UK students has hit record levels, with universities saying the trend reflects better teaching and the higher A-level grades of entrants.
The proportion of firsts awarded by UEA in 2011/12 was 16 per cent, up from 11 per cent in 2006/7.
In other evidence universities are putting pressure on staff, Surrey University discussed whether to assess academics on the marks they awarded to students.
A memo said: ‘The intention of this target is not to inflate grades unjustifiably but to ensure that levels of good degrees sit comfortably within subject benchmarks and against comparator institutions.’
‘This isn’t about dumbing down – far from it. Rather, it is about rewarding excellent work with high marks – and giving credit where credit is due’
The plan was eventually dropped, however, after critics argued that it would compromise the academics’ ability to make objective assessments of students work.
And at Nottingham University, documents seen by this newspaper show a working group said there was ‘a perceived reluctance’ in some departments ‘to use the full range of marks and this may have had a knock-on impact on degree classification in particular in relation to firsts…’
The group added that departments whose results fell below those at comparable universities were ‘asked to consider this’. The new disclosures come as official figures to be published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency this week are expected to show another rise in the proportion of graduates awarded top degrees.
Prof Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: ‘The documents from UEA show evidence of deliberate dumbing down. It shows the university is giving out better degrees than students deserve.
‘Universities seem to be in a race to give out as many good degrees as they can and are putting their academic staff under pressure to mark more leniently. They are in competition for students and their income depends on who they attract. Many are doing this tacitly, but UEA has set it down in black and white.’
But the pro-vice chancellor of UEA, Professor Neil Ward, said Prof Smithers’s claims were ‘unfounded’, adding the new marking system was too new to have had any impact on results. He said: ‘We totally refute the accusation of deliberate dumbing down. The claim that students are being awarded degrees they don’t deserve is utterly incorrect. The documents are part of regular good practice reviews.’
Nottingham University said: ‘We strongly refute the suggestion that academic degree grades have been artificially inflated in recent years.’