Universities should take spelling and grammar into account when marking exams, according to the Office for Students (OfS).
England’s higher education regulator said that some institutions have interpreted equality legislation in a way that means they do not assess technical proficiency in written English for all students.
It said that all students should be assessed on spelling, punctuation, and grammar in order “to maintain quality and protect standards”, and that, from October 2022, it would be taking action against any institution not doing so.
In response to the suggestion, the National Union of Students (NUS) said that education was “much broader” than spelling and grammar.
Following a review of assessment policies at five institutions, the OfS said it feared that staff being allowed to ignore errors in students’ written work was “widespread”.
The review follows cases this year of institutions using “inclusive assessment” policies more widely, and only taking quality of writing into account in courses where it was deemed to be critical, leading to condemnation from ministers.
The OfS said its inspectors “analysed examples of assessed student work from a range of modules and disciplines”, along with marking criteria and staff comments, to identify how “language accuracy” was being assessed in practice.
It said it found “common themes that gave us cause for regulatory concern”, including interpretations of the Equality Act and similar legislation made by several universities to justify not assessing proficiency in written English for all students.
The OfS said: “As a consequence, it appears that accurate use of spelling, punctuation, and grammar is not assessed for many students at these providers, and in some cases, its assessment is explicitly not permitted.
“Compliance with this legislation does not in our view justify removing assessment of written proficiency in English for all students.
“We would expect providers to assess spelling, punctuation, and grammar for most students and courses.”
The regulator also suggested that poor assessment practices “could be an indicator of wider concerns” about institutions, with low standards partly behind the increasing proportion of first-class degrees being awarded.
Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the OfS, said: “Some universities and colleges ask academics to ignore poor spelling, punctuation, and grammar to make assessment more inclusive.
“Rigour and standards matter at all stages of education, and the fundamentals of good spelling, punctuation and grammar are as important today as they ever were”
– Michelle Donelan
“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.
“It risks placing new graduates at a disadvantage in the labour market, and could leave employers spending time and money training graduates in basic written English.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “Any proposals to change existing practices must take into account the lived experiences of those with dyslexia.
“Rather than reforming assessment practices and tinkering at the edges of our education system, we must re-envision education, and accept that our examination system needs fundamental transformation.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said universities fully recognise the importance of English language proficiency.”
“As the OfS notes, this report refers to a small number of universities. The OfS also recognises that practices will differ across the large and diverse university sector, and there is no evidence in what has been presented to suggest the practices causing concern are the norm.”
Michelle Donelan, universities minister, said: “Rigour and standards matter at all stages of education, and the fundamentals of good spelling, punctuation, and grammar are as important today as they ever were.
“The government is determined to drive up standards at universities, so that every student can benefit from a quality education which leads to good outcomes, and it is right that the Office for Students is putting universities that disregard poor written English on notice.”