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Engineering department chaos: students miss graduation, offers, amid marking debacle

Chaos has erupted among the fourth-year Engineering cohort as a number of candidates were marked incorrectly for their papers – or seemingly not marked at all. The Department of Engineering Science has been slow to respond to requests for mark checks, leaving students in an awkward limbo of uncertainty as to their degree classification.

These exams are important, as to continue to fourth year – in order to earn an integrated master’s rather than a BA – Engineering students must have a combined average above 50% for their second year Part A and third year Part B exams. The marks are also often crucial for students applying to internships and jobs. 

Cherwell spoke to a student who found themselves below the 50% threshold after receiving their Part B results. The student contacted the Department immediately to ask for a mark breakdown, only receiving a reply two weeks later after the Undergraduate Studies Officer returned from annual leave. The student was told to make a data access request to the University’s data compliance team, who took another five weeks to respond. The mark breakdown revealed that a twenty-five mark question had not been included in the mark – significant because the student had missed the 50% threshold by just fourteen marks. 

At this point the student’s family had already booked expensive last-minute flights and accommodation to attend the unexpected graduation. The student, by now “getting stressed”, contacted the Undergraduate Studies Officer only to be told “[w]e do not permit 2nd marking [sic]”. They said they had done “a courtesy check” and claimed “we didn’t miss anything off the marksheets”.

However, when phoned by the student’s senior tutor, the Department agreed to check the marks again. The process was delayed for two weeks, this time because the Chair of Examiners was on leave. Five days after their graduation ceremony – shortly before the beginning of 0th Week – the student was still waiting for a reply and emailed the Department yet again. They received an automated email that their results had been updated on Student Self Service, and discovered they now met the threshold and could continue to fourth year. The Department did not apologise.

Cherwell also spoke to an Engineering student who has been prevented from continuing to fourth year because of their Part B exam results. When two papers returned much lower marks than expected, the student consulted with their tutor. While an initial admin check on the lowest paper returned nothing, the tutor asked for an admin check on the other papers and one mark jumped from 46 to 64. The student hypothesised that the Department must have “literally written the numbers the wrong way around”.

Under the impression that there was no other way to appeal the remaining unchanged mark, the student applied for an ‘exemption of examination criteria’, asking for certain serious mitigating circumstances in their second year to be taken into account when calculating their average for both years. In late August the student heard by word of mouth they could actually appeal their results through a Subject Access Request (SAR). But they were still waiting for the verdict on their exemption appeal, and their tutor advised them to wait.

It took over two months for the Department to return a verdict on the exemption appeal, which they rejected – a decision the student found “hurtful”. They immediately submitted a SAR, but by this point it was already 0th Week. The student expressed frustration that the Department had been “so slow at responding”, as even if the SAR reveals the missing mark they suspect and they pass the 50% threshold, they will only be able to join fourth year in 2023. 

The student commended the efforts of their tutor, but referred to the Department’s “care, effort and organisation” as “appalling”. They are now in a difficult financial situation, unable to access student loans and scrambling to sublet their rental accommodation. Their career prospects have also been “hugely impacted”, as they had to apply to jobs and master’s degrees without clarity over their degree classification. The student already holds a job offer from a prestigious firm but is worried that the uncertainty around their marks and when they will graduate might breach the conditions of the offer and cause them to “lose the opportunity of a lifetime”. 

They told Cherwell: “[I’ve] thoroughly enjoyed the course up until now, but … [t]he [Department] has fundamentally wasted thousands of pounds of my money, huge amounts of my hard work, and a year of my life.”

Annabel Staines, an Engineering student at Wadham, discovered on results day that one of her papers was missing its mark entirely and another was significantly lower than expected. She emailed the Department on 13th July and was also told that the Undergraduate Studies Officer was away on leave. After emailing them again on 9th August she received an automated reply explaining the Department had a “high workload” so “response time may be longer than usual”. The email asked Staines to “please try not to send multiple emails on the same matter”. 

Staines received an update on 23rd August and saw the paper with no mark had been corrected. There was no change to the other paper, however, so she reached out again on 30th August to ask for a mark check. The Undergraduate Studies Officer sent her a short email saying the deadline to appeal had passed on 11th August, to which Staines replied with a screenshot of her email from 9th August. The Undergraduate Studies Officer finally sent a mark breakdown after Staines submitted a Freedom of Information request to the data protection team. 

Throughout this exchange Staines had been advised by Wadham’s Exam Officer, to whom she then sent the mark breakdown showing only one question had been marked alongside a copy of the PDF script from her exam demonstrating she had submitted three questions. This was passed to Wadham’s Academic Officer, who included it in an email to the Department asking for the issue to be resolved as soon as possible. Staines, however, is still waiting for a resolution. She is very frustrated with the Department’s communication, and notes that “the process feels like it could be simpler but is made more complicated as [the Undergraduate Studies Officer] almost never responds to emails”. She criticised the Department for not having someone on hand to guide students, saying that in her experience, it “will only help you if you ask for the right thing”.

Cherwell contacted the Department to ask how many Engineering students had queried their Part B exam results hoping to better understand the scale of the issue, but no figures were received. Staines had reached out on a group chat asking anyone affected by missing or incorrect marks to react. Twenty-seven people reacted to the message, sixteen of whom then messaged Staines privately. She estimates there are about 170 people in her cohort. 

The Department told Cherwell: “[We have] received a number of enquiries from students about their Part B exam results and we are in the process of carrying out a thorough investigation, which is likely to take several weeks. […] Once we are clear about the scope of any issue found, we will take appropriate action.”

The Department added that it would be “taking this opportunity to carry out a thorough review of our processes to minimise any potential risk to a fair assessment for all students in the future”.

Image credit: Oxford University Engineering department

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