One of the key performance indicators of higher education is the grade given to a student as part of the examination or assessment process. In order to ensure that the grade is appropriate and merited and is not influenced by improper considerations, various safeguards are built in. These include the consideration of grading by external examiners and boards of examiners, where marks can be reconsidered and adjusted.
However, such processes can become controversial, and indeed can raise accusations of inappropriate decision-making. In one Irish institute of technology recently some lecturers boycotted graduation ceremonies because they were unhappy about the adjustment of marks by appeal boards. One Canadian university has recently been in the spotlight for allegedly forcing a professor to lower his marks.
As the debate over the past year about ‘grade inflation’ has shown, the way in which student performance is assessed is one of the most critical issues in higher education. In order to ensure that grades are seen as appropriate and are respected, the system used needs to be impartial, transparent and intellectually demanding. In this context however, groups and boards can get it wrong just as easily as an individual, particularly if they pay excessive attention to institutional interests.
Occasionally it is suggested that the answer is to make this an administrative process, subject to bureaucratic procedures that will kick in particularly if the pattern of grades arouses suspicion, and more particularly still if grades are coming out too high. On the other hand, academic achievement is not a matter of administrative judgement, and should not become one. Equally however, the grades awarded are not necessarily an expression of ‘academic freedom’: I cannot insist that my marking standards should be applied even where they deviate from those of others.
There is no perfect way of dealing with this, but the one most likely to address problems is the system of external examiners, under which grades are checked by senior academics from other institutions to ensure that the system has integrity. However, this system, which relies heavily on personal and institutional goodwill, is coming under stress, in part because external examiners (now considered ‘employes’ for revenue purposes) cannot be properly rewarded for what they do, and in part because the bureaucracy of assessment is threatening to overwhelm the system. Confidence in higher education depends strongly on assessment working well; we should be aware of that and, therefore, we should be willing to restate support for external examining as a vital element in maintaining a high quality system.