Draft letter to Universities UK about the Times Higher Education’s ‘Exam Howlers’ competition
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Dear Dame Julia,
and the executive heads of the higher education institutions of the United Kingdom,
We are writing you regarding the yearly invitation by Times Higher Education for lecturers to submit “exam howlers”, for a competition in which the winning submission (i.e., the lecturer submitting the “funniest” student error) is awarded a magnum of champagne. A selection of submissions is published online and in print. For a number of years, Times Higher Education has reported the item was the most viewed item on its website; the cited “exam howlers” have been reported and cited in the national press, including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. We believe it is incumbent upon you to make a statement about this practice as the current situation is unclear and potentially breaches existing university rules, both formal and informal.
Proponents of the practice of publishing anonymized “exam howlers” claim that it is harmless fun, and that it is a healthy way to let off steam during grading. Opponents of the practice argue that it undermines trust between tutors and students, that it breeds an unhealthy atmosphere where “punching down” is seen as acceptable among teaching staff, that it disregards the fact that errors can be caused not only by stress but also by disability, and that there is no real anonymization when submitters of the howlers are identified by name and affiliation, and students can hypothetically self-identify. We believe it is self-evident that there should be no place for the public sharing of students’ mistakes in educational establishments that value dignity in the relationship between educators and students. As the ‘Guideline to Dignity at Brunel’, of this year’s “winner” Brunel University West London, states on its cover page: “Dignity is the state of being worthy of honour and respect.” If we are truly committed to fostering a learning environment which is accessible and respectful, is there really space for a practice which endangers trust relations through smug superiority, has a potential to harm students with learning disabilities through mocking bullying, and to undermine the self-confidence needed in learning processes?
While having theoretical significance, however, discussion of the merits of the practice carries limited practical consequence, as it is already implicitly banned by many universities’ examination regulations. Particularly relevant are those regulations relating to intellectual property and to the confidentiality with which examination scripts should be treated. Is it permitted for tutors to share excerpts from students’ work without their permission, with the aim of publication? Several universities, including this years’ winner, Brunel, explicitly confirm students’ intellectual property over their own work in their regulations. And with what level of discretion should exam scripts be handled? Many universities’ examination regulations specify their confidential nature. Thus, to give a few examples, the University of Oxford states that examination scripts are ‘strictly confidential and in no circumstances may be shown to or discussed with anyone other than examiners or properly appointed assessors’; the Open University stipulates that ‘all information you [i.e. students] give in assignments is regarded as confidential to you, your tutor or practice assessor, and the University, and won’t be divulged to anyone outside the University’; Ulster University urges that ‘staff should ensure confidentiality at all times’; King’s College London states that ‘scripts … are confidential’; Canterbury Christ Church University refers to exam scripts as ‘particularly confidential’. Nevertheless, each of these universities have been cited as sources of entries in the Times Higher Education exam howlers “competition” in recent years, and in one case a competition “winner”, a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, even boasts of that accomplishment on their university staff profile; the victory was also announced in the University’s magazine, ‘Inspire’.
Not only does it harm student/teacher trust and breach regulations, the practice also puts lecturers at risk. In the current situation, lecturers submitting “exam howlers” as entries in the yearly Times Higher Education competition risk falling foul of their institutions written or unwritten rules concerning the handling of examination scripts. Such transgressions have in the past been condoned (and as we hear from reports in some institutions apparently even encouraged), with only occasional repercussions when a lecturer was felt to have gone too far, and embarrassed the institution, as in the widely reported case of a lecturer at Nottingham University who evidently crossed that unspoken line; obviously, it will never be the publication or the university that receives punishment, but always only the individual (and, in all likelihood, contingent) academic employee.
We therefore believe it is pertinent both for the well-being of educators throughout the higher education sector, and for the relation between students and teachers, that you as executive heads of the universities of the United Kingdom, once and for all clarify the universities’ position, with a clear statement of your position on the treatment of exam scripts, and the sharing of students’ errors for entertainment.
With kindest regards,