‘Patronising’ not to expect proficient English from students, unis told

The Office for Students has given universities a year to comply with its new rules on assessments

Marking students’ work without reference to their spelling, punctuation and grammar on the grounds of inclusivity is “patronising”, the regulator for higher education in England has said.

The statement accompanies a new report from the Office for Students (OfS), which considers marking schemes used in several universities that tell staff not to assess the quality of students’ written English when marking tests and coursework.

Susan Lapworth, the direction of regulation at the OfS, told universities her organisation’s position was quite clear. “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,” she said.

Universities have a year to comply – after which, Lapworth said, the regulator would intervene and take action. Ignoring poor grammar, spelling and punctuation to promote inclusivity is misguided, said the OfS, even if a student has a learning disability or does not speak English as a first language.

Universities should remove barriers for students that might impede their ability to take an assessment under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, but it “does not apply to ‘competence standards’, which in this context refers to academic standards”, the regulator set out in its report.

It is right that the Office for Students is putting universities which disregard poor written English on notice
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister

Earlier this year, universities minister Michelle Donelan said she was “appalled” by reports the University of Hull would not mark down students for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation in exams, and the OfS launched its review of ‘inclusive’ assessment practices in June.

“Students should be able to communicate their ideas effectively. This means their written work must be of a high standard, with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar,” Lapworth told vice-chancellors, adding: “Some universities and colleges ask academics to ignore poor spelling, punctuation and grammar to make assessment more inclusive. The idea that they should expect less from certain groups of students is patronising. It threatens to undermine standards as well as public confidence in the value of a degree.”

Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, said it was “right that the Office for Students is putting universities which disregard poor written English on notice”.

“The fundamentals of good spelling, punctuation and grammar are as important today as they ever were,” she added.

The report includes case studies of mark schemes in use in English universities. One instructed markers not to penalise students for their writing: “Markers are actively encouraged to accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication,” the OfS noted. It warned that such policies “may have” lowered standards, contributed to grade inflation and disadvantaged students, employers and taxpayers.

Universities should, instead, direct students to guidance and support for their written English and proofreading skills, the regulator advises.


Read more: Donelan urges universities to ’embrace’ lifelong learning entitlement

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