Universities which refuse to mark down students for spelling and grammar mistakes are to be investigated by the regulator.
The Office for Students has launched a review of “inclusive” assessment policies that overlook literacy errors to boost equality among students.
Lecturers at several universities have been told that requiring good written English could disadvantage certain groups, such as ethnic minorities or those from underperforming schools.
It has prompted warnings of the “dumbing down” of degrees.
A marking policy at the University of Hull seeks to challenge a “homogenous North European, white, male, elite mode of expression” in essays that depend on high “technical proficiency” in English.
This obscures students’ background and characteristics, such as those for whom English is not their first language, it is claimed.
The University of Worcester’s policy says it is “fairer” to focus marking on ideas and “how well the student has communicated their understanding” of the subject, rather than on spelling, grammar and punctuation, where they are not central to the assessment criteria.
Now, the Office for Students is examining universities’ policies to see if any could breach regulatory and good practice guidelines. A report will be published this autumn and intervention has not been ruled out.
‘Patronising to expect less from students’
Susan Lapworth, the director of regulation at the Office for Students, said: “We have been clear that standards should not be reduced for particular groups of students and it is patronising to expect less from some students under the guise of supporting them.
“Effective academic writing requires good spelling, punctuation and grammar from all.”
Rigorous marking criteria is essential if degrees in the English higher education sector are not to be devalued, the regulator said.
Other “inclusive” marking policies include one at Durham University, which says staff should not mark down “minor errors” in spelling and grammar if the answer is clear and coherent, to avoid penalising disabled students.
Meanwhile, the University of the Arts London tells academics to “actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes” as long as they do not “significantly impede communication”.
Prof Frank Furedi, of the University of Kent, told The Telegraph: “These inclusive policies lower the expectations of students and thereby, instead of cultivating the capacity for learning, just deprive them of a decent academic education.”
The University of Hull said it balanced its “inclusive approach” with standards in the Quality Assurance Agency’s subject level benchmarks, while Worcester has stressed many students in the UK are dyslexic.