The annual exam board is perhaps the most bizarre spectacle in the academic calendar. Each department has a board dedicated to its own discipline composed of all the markers – these are the ones in the room with bags under their bleary eyes – who have scrutinized the student work that is listed in fat piles of listed marks and tables. Thirty staff sit around a table like intelligent mannequins listening – or simulating attention – to the student numbers and grades being read out while they follow silently the lists of candidates’ results.
It can sometimes seem endless, made worse by the board’s secret languages of abbreviations and codes: ‘The student has two and a half units at level two and the failure of SOZ0245 is condoned so that can proceed as a Z1.’ Only the exams officer and the chair fully understand what the hell it all means.
Then there are the perennial grumbles of external examiners whose volume of work increases year on year while the turnaround time for reading the volumes of scripts shrinks. There is always an inscrutable college administrator, a veteran of innumerable exam boards, who has an eye for an overlooked technicality or who can be called upon to predict the judgement of the university’s higher authorities.
They are usually tranquil occasions in contrast to the frantic rush to get the marks in and assemble the packages of assessments to send to the external examiners. But exam boards can have moments of drama.
A friend told me of one board where the exams officer – a ‘high profile’ academic who considered ‘administration’ a waste of his intellect – had not done the significant amount of work required to prepare for the board. Chaos and uproar ensued, the external examiner resigned on the spot and tempers flared producing a kind of academic civic unrest. This is exceptionally rare.
Usually, though, it is students who are on the boundaries between degree classifications that raise the emotional temperature of the board, especially when a student is denied a first class degree by the tiniest of margins. Despite the public concern about ‘grade inflation’ and falling university standards, the best students have long been denied the grades they deserve. I remember once sitting on a board as an external examiner when an academic – who was retiring – said of a student dissertation that it was ‘the best piece of work [he’d] read’ in his more than forty years as a university teacher. He gave the dissertation 72. That is 28 points off the possible maximum!
Historically even the best teachers have not used the top quarter of the marking spectrum. Examiners’ inhibitions and the hugging of grade borders create marginal cases where the best students suffer. By the time of the exam board, with its strict rules, it is too late and there is often little room for manoeuvre. You can’t put right in June or July at the board that which could have been easily rectified with a flick of the marker’s pencil.
To my mind markers should use the full range and avoid hedging their bets. Perhaps, there is something here about boundary maintenance in the reluctance to award high marks. A 72 keeps the brightest students in their place – as pupils not peers.
In 2009 figures were released showing that between the years 1996/97 and 2007/08 the proportion of first class degrees awarded had almost doubled, with 13.3% of all graduates receiving a First. Despite the protests of grade devaluation this is a sign of progress. I am sure that despite the trend there were many hidden cases where the inhibitions of markers meant that degree finalists missed the highest achievement by the smallest of margins.