University cleared over 'soft-marking' allegations
The University of Canberra has been cleared by an independent inquiry of ''soft marking'' Chinese students, but has been advised it needs to ensure academic standards are upheld consistently across the university.
Retired senior deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New England Professor Graham Webb was brought in last month to investigate whether proper academic policies were followed after two Chinese exchange students had their marks upgraded in a print journalism unit. His report, issued yesterday, found no evidence of wrongdoing.
This followed former UC journalism tutor and current PhD candidate Lynne Minion going public with her concerns that in 2010 she had been instructed by journalism course convenor and former Canberra Times editor Crispin Hull to pass two Chinese students she had previously failed for their poor English expression.
The students were native Chinese students from the Shanghai University of Sport, who were spending two of their four years of a sports media degree at the UC before returning to live and work in China.
Mr Hull overrode Ms Minion's fail marks because he said they would not be practising journalism in Australia and it was a case of ''grinning and bearing it''.
When the story broke, it raised a larger national question of whether students with substandard English language skills are subject to softer marking than their Australian classmates because of the lucrative fees they pay to study at Australian universities.
Professor Webb's report found that while Ms Minion believed there had been a clear case of different standards being applied to foreign students, Mr Hull had acted appropriately in moderating their marks and passing them.
Professor Webb noted that English expression accounted for just 20 per cent of the mark. He supported Mr Hull's belief that ''the assignments were intelligible so that when marking on the full range of criteria was undertaken and the criteria were fairly applied, the students passed the assignment''.
There was no evidence of institutional pressure to reduce standards.
Professor Webb said Mr Hull's defence that the students were not going to practise journalism in Australia was inappropriate - although it had no bearing on the outcome.
He made several administrative recommendations, including that UC better induct new tutors to the job and that teaching staff are alerted in advance to new cohorts of students being admitted to courses.
He also recommended more comprehensive assessment benchmarking be put in place across the UC than is currently the case - suggesting an institution-wide plan be developed and implemented in light of new regulatory approaches under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency which started nationally this year.
While Ms Minion told the media that she had raised the matter with senior staff members at the time - and provided Professor Webb with two names - he found that after speaking with them, ''both were clear that although they had discussed other matters with the tutor, this matter had never been raised with them.''
Ms Minion denied this was the case yesterday, saying the investigation was a ''whitewash''.
The National Tertiary Education Union described Ms Minion's complaint as courageous.
ACT Division Secretary, Stephen Darwin said ''the investigation does identify that the same assessment standards needed to be applied across units regardless of the anticipated occupational destination of students, and this must be assured in future assessment practices in this and other UC programs''.
''This clearly vindicates the nature of the original complaint and provides an important message about the critical nature of consistently applied assessment standards.''
Given the difficulty the inquiry had in tracing emails between Ms Minion and Mr Hull over the issue because they were sent on private accounts, Professor Webb also recommended that the UC mandate the use of university staff email accounts to conduct university business and keep records of student assignments for longer than the currently mandated one year period.