Disputes in British Universities

Graham Huddart, UMIST (University of Manchester)

Shock result for simply taking the ‘wrong’ options

I read mathematics at UMIST from 1976 to 1979. In these days, degree results in this department were based one third on a student’s second year performance and two thirds on the third year performance. All second year courses were mandatory whereas third year students were required to select 6 subjects from a choice of 12.

At end of the second year my aggregate mark was 67.6%, a comfortable 2.1 placing me equal second in a class of just over 20.

On entering the third year I was a tad disappointed to discover that Dr Sharpe, one of the best lecturers in the department, had taken ill and was not going to be around during my final year. I believe that this threw the pure mathematics department out of kilter with the consequence that one of the pure courses was dropped. Also, certain subjects were presented by lecturers who were inexperienced at teaching their allotted subject. Despite this, I chose to read all of the 4 pure options that were available and two applied options.

The first term progressed well with most of the courses being reasonably well presented. The second term saw a general decline in standards with algebraic topology in particular suffering from appallingly bad lecturing. It was not until the final examinations, however, that it became apparent that something was amiss.

The first exam I took was logic, one of my favourite subjects. The exam was harder that I expected with one otherwise strong student leaving the examination hall after just 2 hours (all exams were 3 hours in duration). The next exam was topology, another stiff exam with a crop of students leaving before time. In the intervening days between exams I ventured into the library and stumbled across some fellow students. One revealed how the control theory exam had been a “piece of cake”. Another student described the continuum mechanics exam as a “walkover”. Regrettably, I had taken neither of these options, but little did I know that the worst was yet to come.

The exam I dreaded most of all was algebra. The course had not been particularly well presented, perhaps because this was one of the courses previously taken by Dr Sharpe. Ring theory (50% of the course) bore all the hallmarks of an impromptu arrangement since the course was nearly all bookwork with hardly any examples. I compensated for this by conducting my own research with the end result that I could confidently tackle any of the past papers.

Come the day of the exam I was naturally apprehensive. On opening the exam paper I was confronted with questions that bore little resemblance to the previous year’s papers. It is debatable if they were even relevant to the coursework. I realised at this point that any dreams I had of getting a first had flown well and truly out of the window. After just half an hour, sighs and groans were evident in the examination room. At least I was not alone in what I confess was a slight sense of panic. After 90 minutes one candidate left the examination room with tears welling in her eyes. There then followed a gradual exodus of candidates with one (rather jokingly) issuing a threat the kill the offending lecturer. Of the 8 candidates taking the algebra paper, I was one of only 2 remaining in the examination room when time was called. This had, without doubt, been the hardest exam and the worst day of my entire life.

On the day the results were announced I recall feeling nervous as I approached the maths building. I knew from the algebra experience that I had flunked a first although I was quietly confident of a 2:1. With my heart pounding I approached the table of results outside the library. To this day I remember the cold feeling in my guts when, on casting my eyes up the list of names, I discovered that I had only been awarded a 2:2. “There’s been a mistake” I shouted and promptly ran to my tutor’s office to protest.

My tutor, Dr Sharma, was an Indian national who spoke surprisingly poor English. When I expressed my disgust with my result his comment was a rather na?ve “you just got the answers wrong”. When I pushed him to make a formal complaint on my behalf I was met with a blank refusal. Feeling shell shocked, I returned home to consider my options. I should point out here that at no time did my tutor (or any other member of staff) enlighten me as to any official appeals procedure.

Several days later I returned to the department to speak directly to Dr Iain Bride, the course administrator. He was not around but, by chance, I did bump into Dr Thatcher, my 2nd year numerical analysis lecturer with whom I had developed a good rapport. I explained my problem to him and was invited to his office. To my surprise, he had a full breakdown of the marks in his desk which, naturally, he consulted to verify my claims. After browsing for just 30 seconds he expressed concern at the huge discrepancies in marks between the pure and applied papers. On the control theory paper, for example, the average mark was over 60%. By contrast, all 8 candidates taking algebra were deemed to have failed despite the marks being boosted by a factor of 1.1 (an extra 10%). I also learned that algebra was the only paper whose marks had received any kind of adjustment and that the exam itself had been set by neither of the persons presenting the course.

Here are a few other statistics that I gleaned from my conversation with Dr Thatcher: