The Soft Marking Myth

I was reading the Australian, a national newspaper, and found a story about an investigation into a school of Journalism where, it was alleged, soft marking had taken place or had been requested to the benefit of two students with poor English language skills. I have no idea how often this actually happens in Australian universities but I know how many times people have insinuated to me that we must be practising this given how many international students we have – and it’s not a small number. (I must look shifty or something) It irritates me that in 2012, in a multi-cultural society dominated by the immigration waves of the last 200 years, we are still having this discussion!

Well, on the record, not only have I never done that, nor would I ever do that, but I have never had it insinuated, suggested, implied or stated that this is something I should even consider doing – on, off, around or through the record. Yes, I have guideline pass and fail rates but these are over entire courses, not for individual students and they are just that – guidelines. Why did I bring this up? Because I generally don’t really know someones intention when they ask this so I’m usually relatively neutral and polite in my reply. I suspect that I rarely state how offensive, discriminatory and wrong these allegations are, when made across a group as a blanket statement. Some people just repeat stuff they’ve heard in the media or bring things up because it suits their thinking pattern – and that’s necessarily part of a bigger agenda. So, sometimes, I answer the question and let it slide but here’s what I really think

Before I go into detail let me say that, yes, I believe that targeted soft marking can and does happen but, again, I have never seen it practised, heard it spoken of or seen evidence of it within my school – and I have access to one of the most comprehensive and detailed sets of student performance data in the Southern Hemisphere. So let me return to addressing what bothers me.

  1. It’s offensive to staff because it paints us as having no integrity, being (at best) mercenary and having no commitment to academic standards and professional ethics. When anyone says “Oh, you must give those Chinese/Malay/African kids an easier time because they’re paying” they may not realise it, but they’re very close to saying “… because you’ll do anything for cash, won’t you?”
  2. It’s offensive to students because it is inherently discriminatory and a wider generalisation would be hard to find. One instance does not define a class and the behaviour of a group does not allow complete prediction of an individual. This kind of accusation almost always falls along cultural or gender lines and seeks to diminish the achievements or standing of a group.
  3. It’s wrong to assume that it is something that happens at every institution or something that must occur if we are to retain our profile in the international educational market. It’s a short-sighted and destructive practice that would quickly erode the value of the degree if it was an incredibly widespread practice. Yes, I imagine some institutions may undertake it but a University’s testamur (the parchment) is supported by the reputation of the institution. Somewhere that gets known as easy marking or low quality will quickly lose reputation. Get a rep for easy marking for cash and you may never climb out of the hole. The graduates of the program will be of a lower professional quality – and word gets around if your CS graduates can’t program or your engineers’ bridges keep falling down.

My greatest problem is not having to explain this, it’s knowing that at least some of the people reading this will be thinking things like “Really?” or “Can we believe that given where he is?”or “Well, he’d say that wouldn’t he.” – and, at that point, I’d address you to point 1, except now you’re calling me a liar as well. 🙂

There many anecdotes out there about this and, yes, subversive behaviour often has concealed evidence trails, but many anecdotes do not produce anecdata – especially when so many are the same story retold and retold. Yes, it’s happening somewhere, no doubt, for monetary or similar reasons. Yes, it is a gross violation of the compact between University and student and makes a sham of academic integrity. You would be hard pressed to find someone who would campaign harder against unethical activities such as this than me.  If I thought it was happening right here, in my school? I’d be working to eradicate and leave if it didn’t go away – but, in a school full of diversity, I can’t see it. And, yes, I have my eyes wide open.

To me, sadly, while there may be basis in some places, and I’ll wait to see the outcome of the article in the paper, it always looks more like a mask for racism. Yes, we always do have and almost always will have cultural differences across our campuses but different doesn’t mean  bad or, far more importantly, mean that you can use lazy thinking to project racism out and disguise it as a concern over marking integrity.

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