Why we think the system is failing us.
While university is a holistic experience, filled with fun social events to attend and interesting societies to engage with, at the end of the day, nothing matters to us as much as our grades. They are what decides our degree, the metric by which we value ourselves, and a large part of what we (or at least the Scottish government) pay the university for. That is why, when we think that our grade seems unjust, it is only natural that we feel that we have the right to question it. Yet, in examining how the University of Glasgow appears to treat its appeals system, this right starts to feel far from inherent.
Both Jamie and I have had our own run-ins with the appeals process. During my intercalated degree, and just as Covid was getting started in the UK, I was awarded an unusually low grade for an essay that I had spent a significant amount of time on, slaving away in the library. Whilst the rest of my work had received As and high Bs, this grade stood out like a sore thumb. I was confused at the reasoning behind the grading, especially when comparing this to the comments I’d received. I waited a few days to separate rationale from emotion, and on going back to analyse the comments, I still felt something didn’t add up. I contacted my Adviser of Studies and was advised that my next best step would be to take up the grade with my course tutor. But, I was also told academic grades were almost never changed once awarded. What then, I wondered, was the point in having an appeals system at all?
The appeals system
For those who have looked at the appeal systems guidelines, they will have encountered a tangled maze of requirements, definitions, and straight-up bureaucracy that would imply that the University doesn’t want anyone to engage with the appeals process.
To put it simply, there are three main grounds for appealing: first, “unfair/defective procedure”, and then two different reasons relating to medical or other adverse personal circumstances – so really, there are two grounds.
Initially, the student is advised to take up the issue with their Adviser of Studies, who would give more information on the process and other available options. To take it further, the full appeal request should be submitted to the College Appeals Committee within 20 days of receiving your grade. Unsatisfied with the result, you can present to the Senate Appeals Committee, and past this point, go externally to the Ombudsman, who can not comment on grades themselves just on the procedures in which they are marked.
It’s bad enough that the grounds are both limited and vague, but when you add the complexity of the process, as well as the pressurised time limit, the appeals process becomes daunting and inaccessible.
In my own experience toying with the idea of appealing a grade, I found nothing but barriers and intimidation. I had received what had been my worst grade since entering honours for a piece of work on which I felt I had done decently.
I was one of many on this course who felt that the marking system didn’t feel fair or properly applied. Grading often felt quite arbitrary: similar comments were given to anything from an A to a C, with all of us being marked by different markers. Feeling emboldened that others also agreed there was “defective procedure”, I enquired to the course administrator about next steps if I were to go through the appeals process.
The first line of their response put it best: “‘Remarking is not a thing that exists.” Despite the several reasons I gave for why I thought the procedure was not fair, I was told “[Academic appeals] are very specific and deal with such things as procedural defects etc, of which there are none here.” And that’s what really got me. The idea that anything I could have said was being totally dismissed, and that I couldn’t have possibly found any procedural defects. It felt like a scare tactic to disincentive me from appealing, and to be honest, it worked. I had already heard, whilst sitting in on somebody else’s SRC appointment about making an appeal, that it essentially never worked. That’s why when later in the same course, when I got an even lower (and even less justified) grade, I knew that there was nothing I could do, and it felt terrible. A university that values protecting itself so absolutely beyond helping its students isn’t fulfilling its role. And Lucy and I aren’t necessarily the only people who feel this way.
What other students think
We sent out a survey across various social media platforms to find out more about student thoughts on the appeals system. 61% of participants had previously considered appealing a grade at University: of these, the majority felt that their grade should be reassessed due to unfair or defective procedure, or on academic grounds.
The Glasgow Guardian found a large proportion of surveyed students saw disparities between grades given across the course for similar pieces of work, with one participant explaining: “Many with the same mistakes had vastly different grades depending on the marker”. Potential issues with markers themselves were flagged up, perhaps having “biases”, being “harsher than most”, and “failing to consider arguments and theories outside of their scope”.
A problem that cropped up numerous times outlined the fact that markers are not necessarily “experts” in the essay’s specific subject field, and as a result, variation in grades across year groups could occur “due to none of the graders being familiar with the work we were citing, and not knowing how to grade such material”. Another student made a similar point, stating: “This is the case with specific dogmatic courses, particularly if exams are graded by staff outside of the department, who only have the grading scheme available”.
Feedback didn’t appear to match up with the grades in many cases, and one student felt particularly aggrieved, stating: “I had a tutor for two semesters in a row… I [had previously] arranged a Zoom meeting with him to discuss how I could apply the feedback given to my essay for that semester. The lecturer gave one word answers when I asked questions and was incredibly unhelpful. When receiving my grade and feedback for the semester two essay, I got the exact same grade, and the exact same feedback, as semester one. It seemed utterly unfair to me that I had explicitly asked for help in those areas, and then was punished because I hadn’t improved on them, even though I was given no assistance.”
Unfortunately though, many students did not end up taking their appeal the full way. A variety of reasons were cited, however it appeared that a significant number of students felt that they were discouraged after speaking to their Adviser of Studies or other University staff, being told it “was a waste of time”. Other students were unsure about how the appeals process worked, finding it confusing and “long winded”, and didn’t fully understand what was classed as sufficient grounds to complain. One survey participant said they were deterred from the process as it was known to be difficult to get through, “unless you had extraordinary circumstances”. Both the deterring of students and the confusion surrounding the process begs the question: what is the purpose of an appeals system if not to give students leeway for harsh markers or inconsistent grading?
As we’ve said, the current system has very limited grounds to appeal, with the “unfair/defective procedure” coming off as vague and inaccessible. In Jamie’s case, he found that even if you try and complain on these grounds, you often get dismissed as actually an academic complaint. Reiterating the above, he was told: “you are not able to appeal because you disagree with the mark”. But maybe you should be.
In our survey, 98% of students surveyed thought that academic grounds should be a grounds for appeal. People generally had two main reasons for this: if feedback didn’t appear reflective of the awarded grade, or when markers appeared to be promoting their personal bias within their grading. These both seem valid: no student should suffer a risk to their degree from confused or biased marking. Yet interestingly, they are also the same reasons, identified in the survey, that pushed the majority of students to consider appealing in the first place. This likely explains why so many similar appeals are either unsuccessful or dismissed from the outset: appealing on “academic grounds” is not yet possible, and if your appeal doesn’t appear to fully fit the “defective procedure” category, you don’t make the cut. From this, another clear benefit from the addition of an academic ground for appeals can be seen – there would no longer exist this grey area of “remarking isn’t possible” towards which the administration can push you. Adding this ground would ensure it wouldn’t matter if your appeal was more relevant to “unfair procedure”, or academic reasons, because both would be applicable; and that means a lot less discouragement of people entering the process.
When so much of how we do at university is reliant on subjective opinions of individuals, the system should do its best to remove as much of this subjectivity as possible, and provide us with means to challenge unjust decisions when we see them. One of our respondents put it best: “Students should feel empowered to challenge a teacher/lecturer who is marking unfairly. No marker is completely perfect.”
Potentially, neither of us deserved to have our grade changed, even if academic grounds were to be made legitimate… but that doesn’t really matter. When we (and so many others) were told there was no point even trying to appeal our grade, we were instantly and unwittingly removed that bit further from the process. So maybe we wouldn’t have gotten a successful appeal, but amongst the many people who currently feel too scared to question the system, there certainly exist those who do deserve it. To the University, perhaps a D-to-C grade change doesn’t matter, but when it can make or break our degree, it does to us.