Grade inflation scandal hits physics department

ALLEGATIONS have been made that grade inflation has been taking place in the Department of Physics at Aberystwyth University. A PowerPoint presentation was circulated to all second year students in the Physics Department, stating that there had been “a very significant up-scaling of marks” following “very low raw exam marks” in the previous academic year, with average grades falling below 40 percent.

The Physical Sciences Building. Photo - Alex Tanton

The Physical Sciences Building. Photo – Alex Tanton

There also appears to be evidence of exam papers being doctored before students even take them in order to make them easier and ensure high pass rates. A staff email, which was left on a printer, reads: “About the exam: it seems that it is urgent, as the first (soft) deadline has already passed. I think that we need to dumb down the exam because of the new progression rules…” A staff member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told The Courier that “the grades were inflated by scaling at the lower end, with as much as 20 percent added to the raw marks to ensure the students passed. The course was new but not too hard, something that should be expected in any physics course.”

Staff members have blamed the grade inflation on a recurrent theme of dumbing down. A staff member stated that: “the standard of some students is poor and these should not pass into second or third year. The good students are having their degrees devalued by this sort of thing. Rather than be rigorous, students are passed into the second year so that “the department doesn’t look bad” without provision, standard or quality of teaching even questioned.”

It has further been claimed that this alteration of marks has been done in order to keep progression rates in the Department of Physics in line with those of other departments. Indeed, in one physics module 27 percent of students had to re-sit in order to progress to the next year of their degree. A staff member has alleged that “there is a culture of fear within the university if you draw attention to yourself, or are accused of not enhancing the student experience – meaning making sure students pass”.

Additional allegations have been made that the external examiner was not aware of any issues, as adjustments to grades were made in an exam board meeting which took place prior to them visiting; a meeting which The Courier has been told took place for the “sole purpose of keeping any poor performance away from the prying eyes of the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education]”. This moderation was not, it has been alleged, an adjustment across the entire scale; staff members have claimed that there was “definite massaging” of grades to ensure students passed, and furthermore students who failed the first time round had marks added from other modules at the resit board to ensure that they passed. Students have allegedly received marks of as low as 20 percent in a module and still received a pass grade for it as long as they did well in other, unrelated, modules.

Crucially, a staff member has alleged that there has been “a cover up from the highest level” over this grade inflation, in an attempt to stop it from coming to light. They further state that: “Sadly employers are cottoning on, and a consequence of dumbing down the course is that only the bare minimum is being taught and students attending other Universities will be at an immediate advantage. The AU degree is being continually devalued. The University management are failing to step up to the plate and deal with this and are frankly stealing money from students.”

When contacted for comment, the University acknowledged without being prompted that allegations centred on the Physics Department. A spokesperson for the University stated that:

“Two new second year modules in Optics, and Electricity and Magnetism were introduced by the Department of Physics for the 2013/14 academic year.

The examination boards discussed these two modules and it was decided to moderate the results attained by students as they were not consistent with their performance in other modules. The standard moderation procedure was applied to ensure consistency of standards across examined modules. The process applied and the outcomes were scrutinised and endorsed by the external examiner for Physics.

The rate for non-progression in the Department of Physics due to students not reaching the required academic standards has been consistent over the past three years and is in line with the University’s average.

The University is fully confident that the processes followed in this instance are compliant with its procedures and do not in any way compromise the standards attained by students or the validity of their qualifications.”