Shock result for simply taking the ‘wrong’ options
I read mathematics at UMIST from 1976 to 1979. In these days, degree results in this department were based one third on a student’s second year performance and two thirds on the third year performance. All second year courses were mandatory whereas third year students were required to select 6 subjects from a choice of 12.
At end of the second year my aggregate mark was 67.6%, a comfortable 2.1 placing me equal second in a class of just over 20.
On entering the third year I was a tad disappointed to discover that Dr Sharpe, one of the best lecturers in the department, had taken ill and was not going to be around during my final year. I believe that this threw the pure mathematics department out of kilter with the consequence that one of the pure courses was dropped. Also, certain subjects were presented by lecturers who were inexperienced at teaching their allotted subject. Despite this, I chose to read all of the 4 pure options that were available and two applied options.
The first term progressed well with most of the courses being reasonably well presented. The second term saw a general decline in standards with algebraic topology in particular suffering from appallingly bad lecturing. It was not until the final examinations, however, that it became apparent that something was amiss.
The first exam I took was logic, one of my favourite subjects. The exam was harder that I expected with one otherwise strong student leaving the examination hall after just 2 hours (all exams were 3 hours in duration). The next exam was topology, another stiff exam with a crop of students leaving before time. In the intervening days between exams I ventured into the library and stumbled across some fellow students. One revealed how the control theory exam had been a “piece of cake”. Another student described the continuum mechanics exam as a “walkover”. Regrettably, I had taken neither of these options, but little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
The exam I dreaded most of all was algebra. The course had not been particularly well presented, perhaps because this was one of the courses previously taken by Dr Sharpe. Ring theory (50% of the course) bore all the hallmarks of an impromptu arrangement since the course was nearly all bookwork with hardly any examples. I compensated for this by conducting my own research with the end result that I could confidently tackle any of the past papers.
Come the day of the exam I was naturally apprehensive. On opening the exam paper I was confronted with questions that bore little resemblance to the previous year’s papers. It is debatable if they were even relevant to the coursework. I realised at this point that any dreams I had of getting a first had flown well and truly out of the window. After just half an hour, sighs and groans were evident in the examination room. At least I was not alone in what I confess was a slight sense of panic. After 90 minutes one candidate left the examination room with tears welling in her eyes. There then followed a gradual exodus of candidates with one (rather jokingly) issuing a threat the kill the offending lecturer. Of the 8 candidates taking the algebra paper, I was one of only 2 remaining in the examination room when time was called. This had, without doubt, been the hardest exam and the worst day of my entire life.
On the day the results were announced I recall feeling nervous as I approached the maths building. I knew from the algebra experience that I had flunked a first although I was quietly confident of a 2:1. With my heart pounding I approached the table of results outside the library. To this day I remember the cold feeling in my guts when, on casting my eyes up the list of names, I discovered that I had only been awarded a 2:2. “There’s been a mistake” I shouted and promptly ran to my tutor’s office to protest.
My tutor, Dr Sharma, was an Indian national who spoke surprisingly poor English. When I expressed my disgust with my result his comment was a rather na?ve “you just got the answers wrong”. When I pushed him to make a formal complaint on my behalf I was met with a blank refusal. Feeling shell shocked, I returned home to consider my options. I should point out here that at no time did my tutor (or any other member of staff) enlighten me as to any official appeals procedure.
Several days later I returned to the department to speak directly to Dr Iain Bride, the course administrator. He was not around but, by chance, I did bump into Dr Thatcher, my 2nd year numerical analysis lecturer with whom I had developed a good rapport. I explained my problem to him and was invited to his office. To my surprise, he had a full breakdown of the marks in his desk which, naturally, he consulted to verify my claims. After browsing for just 30 seconds he expressed concern at the huge discrepancies in marks between the pure and applied papers. On the control theory paper, for example, the average mark was over 60%. By contrast, all 8 candidates taking algebra were deemed to have failed despite the marks being boosted by a factor of 1.1 (an extra 10%). I also learned that algebra was the only paper whose marks had received any kind of adjustment and that the exam itself had been set by neither of the persons presenting the course.
Here are a few other statistics that I gleaned from my conversation with Dr Thatcher:
- No student taking 3 or more pure options obtained a higher degree than a 2:2
- No student taking algebra obtained a higher degree than a 2:2
- The highest mark on both the logic and topology papers was only a 2:2
- There were at least 2 other students whose degree results were lower than predicted as a consequence of taking the pure options
Dr Thatcher also observed that on logic, topology and algebra, my marks were “way above the rest” and commented that I had been “badly treated” by the examiners. Interestingly, he also expressed his surprise that Dr Sharma hadn’t spoken up for me during the examiner’s meeting, attributing his inertia to his poor command of English. I then parted company with Dr Thatcher who promised he would do his best to rescue my degree.
The following evening I received a phone call from Dr Thatcher to tell me he was finding it difficult to consult his colleagues who, by this time, were away on vacation. Of the few that he had spoken to he found one who was sympathetic to my case but this wasn’t enough to tip the scales. With this, his tone soured and he appeared reluctant to pursue the case any further. I strongly suspect that Dr Thatcher had been ‘persuaded’ by the powers that be to keep quiet in order to cover up the bungled mismanagement of our final examinations.
Determined not to give in, I later went to see the NUS representative for UMIST, Sanjay Dighe. Sanjay was not surprised by my story and cited a similar complaint about one of the engineering courses the year before. Fortunately, there was going to be a staff/student meeting the next day and Sanjay promised to raise the question of exam discrepancies on the B.Sc. maths course. According the Sanjay, when asked why there was such a huge disparity in marks between the pure and applied papers, Dr Bride replied “because it was the weaker students who took the pure options”.
Enraged even further by this glib response, I obtained a list of names and contact details for my fellow students and began the task of contacting all of them to muster support, not only for myself, but for all students who had been marked down as a consequence of this fiasco. To my extreme dismay, there was no response at all, not even from those students whose degrees had been downgraded. The saddest case of all was that of PA who, on the basis of his second year results, had been predicted to graduate with an honours pass. In the event, poor old PA did not graduate at all and became severely depressed. A fellow student informed me that he had locked himself in his bedroom and was even refusing to communicate with the outside world (which may explain his lack of response). PA wanted to become a teacher though what became of him I do not know.
On the day of the graduation ceremony I decided to hold my own boycott. I made one further attempt to lobby my fellow students into demanding a reappraisal of our degree results. But once again, their apathy was worthy only of despair. Silence is complicity as they say.
I had considered approaching a lawyer with a view to taking legal action against my former university. But the truth was I had no job, my mother earned a pittance as a secretary and my father had been laid off from the steel works 9 months prior to my finals. The British legal system is a playground for the rich and rich I certainly was not. It is noteworthy that anyone being prosecuted for a criminal offence has an automatic right to legal aid. But would a recent graduate qualify for legal aid to sue his former university? I also draw the reader’s attention to the 2 week time limit on making appeals after degree results are published. If the criminal justice system operated such draconian timescales there would be a public outcry. From the above I cannot help thinking that a common criminal receives a better standard of justice than a student at a British university.
Demoralised and with my options now limited, I embarked on a career in the bourgeoning computer industry. Eventually I became freelance and began to earn decent money. In spite of my success, I was still deeply embittered by my experience at UMIST and sought a means of redeeming my academic record. In 1985 I enrolled on a 1 year M.Sc. course in Robotics and Manufacturing Automation at Imperial College London. The overall standard of presentation and examination was far superior to that at UMIST with the end result that I graduated with the equivalent of a 2:1. It is unfortunate that this is not recorded on postgraduate degrees as this would go some way towards compensating the mediocre result of my first degree. Even so, it gave my confidence a much needed boost after the drubbing it received in 1979.
The years following my M.Sc. were generally prosperous and memories of my first degree gradually faded. By the beginning of 2002, however, the IT industry was entering a downturn and companies were becoming increasingly selective in their recruitment process, with many insisting on a minimum of a 2:1. One January morning in 2003 I had a cold call from a recruitment agent who asked me the result of my first degree (they never ask about my M.Sc.). I told the truth and he replied that he would phone back later. The phone then slammed down and that was the last I heard from him. This rekindled all the bad memories from 1979 and angered me so much that I wrote to my MP, Parmjit Danda, suggesting the establishment of an independent academic ombudsman. Weeks later I received a reply from Alan Johnson M.P. who informed me that the Secretary of State had recently approved a scheme for an Independent Adjudicator for higher Education. In the years following my correspondence I am pleased to say that this has now been established (the relevant website may be found at www.oiahe.org.uk). Unfortunately, the website does state quite clearly that it is unable to intervene in matters of academic judgement which leads me to conclude that all they have constructed is a paper tiger.
After all these years I reflect from time to time on the causes of the debacle at UMIST in 1979. The absence of Dr Sharpe was clearly a major factor but by no means the whole story. Undoubtedly there was a breakdown of communication between staff in the run up to the exams as evidenced by the disparity in rigour between the pure and applied papers. Conspicuous also was the absence of any attempt (algebra excepted) to normalise the marks across the papers. One is inclined to ask whether the staff were even aware that there was a problem and, if so, whether they were simply too idle to do anything about it. Couple this with the sheer lack of honesty in refusing to acknowledge the problem and the felony is compounded even further. Perhaps it was thought that taking remedial action at such a late stage would risk losing face. Whatever their reasons, their failure to address the problem was as criminal as their disregard for the consequences was callous. One only has to realise that a lousy degree result is a veritable life sentence.
In summary, what I have exposed here is but one example of the rough justice that is endemic within higher education. If universities have the power of judge, jury and executioner then there needs to be much greater accountability. The establishment of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, although impotent in its present form, is at least a step in the right direction. For this body to be truly effective, however, its authority needs augmenting to the extent that it can reverse unjust decisions and bring disciplinary action against incompetent academic staff.
E-mail : GrahamHuddart@aol.com