Pearson Education, the company authoring a business degree validated by Royal Holloway, has become involved in the dispute over alleged exam board corruption following an undercover investigation by The Telegraph. Secret footage showed one of the chief examiners of Edexcel, an exam board owned by Pearson, boasting about the lack of teaching content in their A-Level English coursework and the relative ease of the qualification compared to its rivals. The Telegraph also filmed a chief examiner expressing her disbelief that their GCSE Geography short-course was validated at all: “..in fact there’s so little [content] we don’t know how we got it through. And I’m deadly serious about that. When I looked at it I thought, ‘how is this ever going to get through?’”.
The secret footage is only part of The Telegraph’s findings, which have resulted in accusations of malpractice at all the major UK exam boards, including AQA, the board chaired by RHUL Principal, Paul Layzell. Labour’s education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, has accused exam boards of engaging in “corrupt practices” and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, described the current situation facing students as “grotesquely unfair.” He has ordered the examinations regulation body, Ofqual, to conduct a formal investigation into Britain’s major exam boards.
In a statement, Pearson has rejected accusations that it is putting profits before standards: “We do not see a conflict between our education goals and our commercial success. We believe they are mutually reinforcing. Our commitment to upholding standards and our ability to develop rigorous qualifications are fuelled by our financial performance.”
In July, Royal Holloway announced a partnership with Pearson where the college would validate a new business degree that will be available next September (see The Founder – Royal Holloway Pearson Partnership). It is hoped that the Pearson partnership will assist in widening access to higher education by providing a cheaper alternative to business degrees following tuition fees increases in 2012. The scheme also allows students to study from home, opening up the possibility of higher education for individuals who cannot make the move to university due to work, family or mobility constraints. The College commented: “Our academic staff have much experience in running validated and distance learning programmes through the University of London so we will be able to draw on best practice that has been developed over many years.”
Referring to The Telegraph’s revelations, a College spokesperson said: “We are aware of the statements made about Edexcel, which is part of Pearson, along with other organisations such as the Financial Times and Penguin Publishing. However, the statements made have no impact on our agreement, since in this case, Royal Holloway is the awarding body. Our safeguards are that we will have responsibility for all quality assurance matters, for ensuring that there are proper procedures in place for approving and delivering the programme and for assessment arrangements. A member of Royal Holloway staff will chair the exam board for each award and we will therefore have ultimate control of who gets a degree.”
Last July, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that private companies might focus on revenue, rather than providing a challenging degree and that academic standards could be compromised. “Private companies are looking to make the best returns they can and we fear that approach will lead to an incremental narrowing of the curriculum and some students doing inappropriate courses at a greater cost.”
Teachers have long expressed concerns that “competing to be easier”, in order to secure a higher stake in the lucrative UK market for qualifications, is undermining the validity of GCSEs and A-Levels. The growing cost of exam fees is also a concern, as are revelations of examiners providing seminars that appear to reveal how to answer exam papers. In 2003, schools paid out roughly £154 million in fees, in 2010, this had risen to £302.6 million. Pearson derives an annual dividend of £40 million from Edexcel, and has seen profits from the former charity rise tenfold since it acquired Edexcel in 2005. Now the exam boards are being accused of deliberately engineering easier exams for commercial gain.