Universities in England ‘failing to mark down students’ for poor writing skills

Office for Students claims use of ‘inclusive assessment’ policies contributes to grade inflation

Universities and colleges are failing to mark down students for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation, which is leading to grade inflation because of a misguided application of equalities legislation, according to England’s higher education regulator.

After a review of assessment policies at five institutions, the Office for Students (OfS) said it feared that staff being allowed to ignore errors in students’ written work was “widespread”. It warned that it was willing to punish universities for failing to tackle poor writing skills.

The review follows cases this year of institutions using “inclusive assessment” policies more widely, and only taking quality of writing into account in courses where it was deemed to be critical, leading to condemnation from ministers.

Susan Lapworth, the OfS’s director of regulation, said: “The common features we have seen in assessment policies suggest that poor spelling, punctuation and grammar may be accepted across the sector. In publishing this report, we are being clear with universities and colleges that we want to see change.

“Effective assessment should take into account all aspects of a student’s work, and this includes their ability to express themselves effectively and correctly in written English.”

The OfS said its inspectors “analysed examples of assessed student work from a range of modules and disciplines”, along with marking criteria and staff comments, to identify how “language accuracy” was being assessed in practice.

It said it found “common themes that gave us cause for regulatory concern”, including interpretations of the Equality Act and similar legislation made by several universities to justify not assessing proficiency in written English for all students.

“As a consequence, it appears that accurate use of spelling, punctuation and grammar is not assessed for many students at these providers, and in some cases its assessment is explicitly not permitted.

“Compliance with this legislation does not in our view justify removing assessment of written proficiency in English for all students,” the OfS stated.

“We would expect providers to assess spelling, punctuation and grammar for most students and courses.”

The regulator also suggested that poor assessment practices “could be an indicator of wider concerns” about institutions, with low standards partly behind the increasing proportion of top class degrees being awarded.

“If the policies and approaches identified in this report are leading to students getting higher marks than they otherwise would, for instance because poor proficiency in written English is not being routinely assessed, then this not only undermines the rigour of assessment processes, but also contributes to unexplained grade inflation,” the review said.

The OfS added that it would “test this hypothesis” through further investigation.

However, critics said the OfS’s review of five case studies was too narrow and that such assessment policies were unlikely to be widespread among the more than 400 institutions registered with the regulator.

Universities UK, which represents more than 140 mainstream higher education institutions, said: “Universities fully recognise the importance of English language proficiency and effective communication skills. Their courses and assessments are designed to assess a wide range of skills and knowledge.

“As the OfS notes, this report refers to a small number of universities. The OfS also recognises that practices will differ across the large and diverse university sector, and there is no evidence in what has been presented to suggest the practices causing concern are the norm.”

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, said: “The government is determined to drive up standards at universities so that every student can benefit from a quality education which leads to good outcomes, and it is right that the Office for Students is putting universities that disregard poor written English on notice.”

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Richard Adams Education editor

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