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OpinionSocial issues

University: A Grade Too Far?

(Inside Higher Ed, 2017)

Throughout my previous years of getting back into the academic life, I have encountered many situations and policies that seem to baffle me, and I feel, question the very ethics and creed universities are built upon.

What made me interested in writing this opinion piece article you may ask?

One day I was theorizing about my journey and what I have experienced and witnessed throughout my time in academia. Then I started to question the true worth of what a ‘distinction’ means now, and what a distinction used to mean! If students work hard then I think they are entitled to receive the highest results and be provided with study and career options to achieve their dream occupations. In modern times, based on what I have seen from post graduate enrolment, a ‘distinction’ average seems to mean very little. As this is the case, I personally think the academic bodies of this country need to wake up and reflect on previous times when receiving a ‘distinction’ grade and working hard at university actually meant something.

If there is one thing our race has learnt it’s that knowledge plays an important part in success, or as Michel Foucault put it simply; knowledge is power. Many would theorise that the very role of university institutions is to provide the public with the necessary experience and information to complete essential tasks within society, contribute to the economy and help our fellow citizens.

Typically speaking, the reason students are willing to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars of money for a tertiary education is firstly to study a topic of pure interest, and perhaps secondly, to be awarded a job at the end of their academia that will both entice them and pay a competitive sum of money. Otherwise, why would we spend all these sleepless nights and be working as diligently as many of us do?

In all honesty, I am disappointed in the university system of Australia to say the least. Instead of trying to encourage and help people pursue their dreams, I feel that the emphasis is solely reliant on the universities’ core interests, prioritising what benefits them the most at any given time. I do not mean to sound harsh or slander any universities, as I have met many noble professors at universities such as Curtin, Edith Cowan, Murdoch, Notre Dame, and The University of Western Australia. All these universities offer some very excellent courses and possess staff that are supportive towards and legitimately care about their students. But on the other hand, there is a distinct bias and an urgency for the universities to maintain what is known as a bell curve and not award the students the grades they are entitled to, whether they have earned them or not. Based upon my experiences, I have noticed that sometimes grades are wrongly given and the university has not been willing to amend these wrongs despite proof of evidence.

Universities in Western Australia typically follow this grading system; 45-49% is a fail, but the students have the opportunity to sit a complementary exam to provide an additional chance of success. In other circumstances anything under 50% is a fail grade. Between 60-69% is awarded a credit pass. A ‘distinction’ grade is passed on to the student if they have a grade between 70-79%. Lastly, a ‘high distinction’ is the ultimate prize, given to students that reach an overall score of 80-100%.

This is a great system that reflects and highlights the hard work of those students who attend university, but there are many biases correlated with this system as discovered by dedicated students that fail a particular unit or receive a mere passing grade, despite the effort they put in. Previously, there have been examinations that students have been forced to sit that are worth 70% of the semester’s mark, with little-to-no advice given to help prepare them for the exam; a hard-working student could go from a grade of 100% before exam day to receiving a mere grade of 51% as a final grade. If more guidance was provided to these students about what to focus on, as long as the students worked hard, these situations would be very uncommon. If the student is expected to revise every piece of content within each unit as preparation for upcoming exams in such a short time, then unless they have a photographic memory, they are at risk of receiving a low mark despite the fact they are hardworking.

Does the current grading system truly reflect the students work ethic or dedication before the exam? Does it reflect the fact that the student was enlisted as a tutor? Does it reflect the fact that the student was also sacrificing their finances to also pay for tutoring to help understand complex material? Is it fair for a tutor to tell a student not to worry about learning certain lecture material for the exam, only to find out it was worth a fifth of the final paper’s grade on exam day? After appealing this, is it acceptable that the university refuses to increase that student’s grade, even though written proof was kept and submitted for their consideration? No, it’s not. And this simply appals me. It amazes me that with so many stories like this, all the complaints and surveys that are completed addressing these matters, that this still happens. Not everyone would agree, but in my honest opinion I do not believe the level of support and acknowledgement offered to students is adequate.

These questions have been addressed by students whom I have spoken with, after they have conversed with their faculties to get support and clarity. Students facing these issues have been answered with statements such as, “I am sorry to hear that the grade you have received was not what you expected, but they are professionals in their field and this is what they do.” The students in mention have posed question such as “Why is it that I followed the marking key to a tee and have done what I was advised, but have been penalised?” Responses pertained to teacher discretion and university hierarchy usually follow, really translating to, at the end of the day, students are simply just another number in the system. Try not to take it personal and better luck next time.

This is not the only time I have heard these stories or been witness to them. As a student I really do feel that we need more support and tighter regulations of misconduct that are carried out by university staff. I witnessed one case in which a student that was going through a personal crisis and mistakenly forgot to attach the reference list at the back of an assessment. The university decided that instead of awarding special consideration and being accommodating they would try to push plagiarism penalties. They pushed this for weeks but eventually decided they would dock the student 10% of her grade, allowing her a passing grade for that unit and sweeping things under the rug. Why the university couldn’t be more supportive and understanding on this occasion is beyond me!

In modern times it no longer matters if you have a distinction average by the time you complete your degree. Due to the over-flooding of academics, competition is extremely high. You may occasionally receive around 90% or 100% on units and assignments, proving just how hard you have worked throughout your course. But if you have some unlucky moments, unfavourable teachers, a ridiculously complex exam with excessive amounts of content to remember, you can pretty much kiss your dream job goodbye.

Some students work so hard on assignments throughout the semester, but sometimes the grades simply don’t reflect that. If you fail or nearly fail a unit that should be because you didn’t study, or it was too complex, not because your professors or the university have their own agendas in mind to skew marks where they see fit.

One can only speculate why this happens. Do professors want to motivate their students? Are there too many applications for entry into post-graduate courses and this is a way to reduce applicants? There could be a million why’s and many more what if’s, but these are just a few examples of the possibilities.

How could the universities get away with such misdeeds? They are multi-million-dollar businesses. They produce people that work in and have created the very legal system that embodies us.  How do they apparently skew grades? Once again, we can only speculate, but the fear alone of annoying professors and hindering their future academia keeps the students suppressed. Students often like to go with the flow, take their marks as they come for two reasons in my opinion.

Firstly, it is a very difficult process to lodge an appeal within 5 university days that is both successful and significant. Plus, keep in mind the marker does not have to prove that the student is wrong; they are the superior entities of this situation. The student must make a compelling argument as to why they were marked inaccurately and provide evidence. Then we are left in a situation of well one person’s word against another’s.

Whose side would you probably take?

Secondly, most students currently completing undergraduate degrees are very young and still used to being told they are wrong. In short, they are not used to being in tough situations nor have they had to address such nerve-wracking matters, often holding their thoughts of dissatisfaction internally. This isn’t right or just! If students are really applying themselves and are pursuing excellence in order to achieve that dream occupation, then they should be marked accordingly.

In general, exams can be used as another opportunity for the skewing of grades. Exams are often forged in a reflective manner that do not test work ethic. They test a combination of luck and memory. This isn’t right and I do feel tighter regulation of staff and university policies retaining to assessments needs to be implemented. Some will probably argue that exams are not structured in a way that test memory. For example, if a student works out new complex information faster than another student then that student is showing their intellect by the ability to decipher and understand information faster. So those students are likely to be awarded higher grades because they will have had more time to revise their content, which is fair. But if the same student has a memory that is neither good nor bad, they will study all the essential material time and time again, working very hard, but only retain a limited amount of information. So, you may understand everything within your course but if you can’t remember the randomised questions that present in the final heavily weighted examinations then you aren’t likely to do well, despite the fact you have studied hard and proven that you do understand what you have been taught. If academics truly want to test their students without a memory bias in my opinion, they should take measures to ensure the unit material is not excessive or irrelevant before providing this material to the cohort. This is the only way to truly account for the hard workers, those who were lucky on the day and the naturally gifted.

Above all else, I do strongly believe that the university should be helping their students work towards starting post-graduate studies with a goal in mind, one that is realistic and will enable them to be readily employed. In some cases, large grants are offered to students to encourage them to commence post graduate studies. Sadly, I have witnessed advertisements offering grants to students struggling to decide what to study for post-graduate studies, encouraging them to choose the cheapest option rather than one they really enjoy. I feel these promotions have also been created to keep students studying as long as possible, even if that study is not relevant or beneficial to the individual. It’s just my opinion, but to offer these advertisements to people that may have no real interest in education is concerning. Also, why are degrees being offered to people when there are little to-no-job opportunities in the future? Do the universities not want their students to all succeed in life? One can’t help but feel at times, these tertiary institutions are just draining the finances from their students like a hidden blood-thirsty parasite, potentially leaving their students with no practical jobs nor a job that they will actually enjoy. I have deeply enjoyed my tertiary education and have memories and information of a lifetime. I am privileged to have had the opportunities and support that has been provided to myself. But I do feel more needs to be done for the very thing that keep the universities in business and operating, the students.

In conclusion, I think the academic bodies of this country need to wake up and reflect on the time when receiving a ‘distinction’ grade and working hard actually meant something. A time when you could work hard with a vision, that was possible if you met the entry requirements and proved yourself. Opposed to the current paradigm, students are being forced into a pool of uncertainty, not knowing if they can or can’t study their dream occupation but are still required to write personal statements about why they want to study a particular course. They are left to stress and crumble under the pressure of everything, instead of being able to finish and enjoy their last semester as undergraduate students, once again taking away from the true value of tertiary education.

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