discretion

Discretion

Undergraduate Examination Conventions B19 and H33, J38, K39-41, M55 & M57

Integrated Masters Examination Conventions H30, J36, M50 & M52

Postgraduate Taught Examination Conventions M39, M40, M41, R51 and S54

Reminder: Boards of Examiners are asked to be aware of the need for, and importance of, recording accurately the reason for the exercise of discretion or, where appropriate, the reason for not exercising discretion.

Supplementary notes:

General principles

  • The main areas where a Board of Examiners may exercise discretion are:
    • passing modules that would otherwise be failed – including core modules;
    • passing stages ‘notwithstanding’, where the student would not otherwise be able to progress;
    •  permitting a student to progress despite not meeting normal requirements;
    •  recommending a higher class of award  than would be obtained under the conventions or recommending an award not achieved as of right.
  • Discretion must not be used to deny an award or other benefit that the student gains as of right.
  • When considering discretion, the Board of Examiners must accurately record the reason(s) for the decision taken in the minutes; this could include a cross reference to the recommendation of the PEC Committee in cases where there were medical or mitigating circumstances.
  • In certain circumstances, the reason for not applying discretion should be noted.
  • Each case should be considered on an individual basis in order to avoid creating a precedent, and the Chair of the Board of Examiners should be prepared to have to defend its decision in the event of an appeal. Nevertheless the Board must be consistent in its use of discretion.

Circumstances where discretion must not be used

  • When a student has been given additional time to complete an assessment (usually an unseen examination, and usually for a disability such as dyslexia), the PEC Committee should not normally recommend any further discretion unless, in its judgement, the additional time does not adequately compensate for the problems encountered by the student. To recommend some discretion routinely in these cases is to apply a measure of ‘double counting’ which is unacceptable in terms of natural justice, particularly when set against the relative disadvantage afforded to students who do not come before the PEC Committee.
  • Even when a student evidently possesses poor language skills, the assessments must be marked according to the same principles as for all other members of the cohort. The marking, and the construction of the final return mark, should not take any account of the language difficulties. However, a case could be presented to the PEC Committee, and the judgement of this body will be reported to the full Board; only then might some adjustment be invoked.
  • Boards of Examiners are reminded that discretion should not be applied with the purpose of reducing the impact of sanctions imposed under the University Student Disciplinary and Assessment Irregularity Procedures (these procedures include a provision for the consideration of personal and extenuating circumstances, and an appeal mechanism). A Board of Examiners retains the right to apply discretion in areas not covered by a disciplinary outcome. Student Progress Service will endeavour to make case outcome letters as clear as possible to ensure that Chairs of Boards of Examiners understand SPS and/or the Student Disciplinary Committee’s intentions when imposing any particular sanction. Further clarification, if required, can be sought from the SPS case team by emailing casework@ncl.ac.uk

For example, a student might have been given a ‘0’ mark in one module due to an assessment irregularity, and might have marginally failed a second module. Whilst the Board cannot pass the first module by discretion, it may consider using discretion over the second module. Unless it is specified otherwise in the disciplinary outcome, the board may also consider using discretion in decisions on progression or in respect of an award (provided that the impact of the disciplinary outcome is not reduced).

PEC recommendations and their use

  • Discretion on medical or personal grounds should be based on a view of attainment. There should be evidence that appropriate understanding had been attained and that this would have been demonstrated had the personal/medical circumstances not intervened. Typically the personal/medical circumstances will have affected performance in, and/or preparation immediately before, examinations in one or more modules with coursework performance and examination performance in other modules providing appropriate evidence. Longer-lasting circumstances affecting understanding of pre-final-stage modules may be grounds for discretion when considering awarding a higher degree class. However longer-lasting circumstances affecting understanding in the final stage should not normally be regarded as grounds for awarding a higher degree class. For example, a student who is unable to attend lectures for large parts of the final year and has not attained the required standard for any reason (e.g. medical problems), should not receive discretion on these grounds alone, however sympathetic one might be to the plight of that student. In some cases, applying to PEC Committee to re-sit the year as a first attempt is a more appropriate course of action, but it is not always feasible for the student.
  • A recommendation from a PEC Committee should give an indication of the strength of impact of mitigating circumstances (a number 1, 2 or 3) and an indication of  the scope (a list of modules affected, or semesters). The Board of Examiners should reach a view on attainment by considering the recommendation alongside the mark profile, taking into account the level and nature of the modules concerned: how has the student performed in the affected modules compared to other modules in the Semester or Year? If the marks show very little or no impact from the mitigating circumstances, there is no obligation to use discretion. On the other hand, if the marks show a clear impact from the mitigating circumstances, the Board should use the evidence from the marks as a guide to the possible extent of discretion. Unless the PEC Committee’s recommendation specifies otherwise, the Board should not normally go beyond the extent of discretion indicated by the marks.

Example. Suppose that a final year student has an overall average of 59 and a PEC Committee recommendation in respect of a final year 20 credit module. Bear in mind that a more accurate mark would be in the range from 58.5 to 59.4, and that 59.5 would round to 60 and a II.1 by right: it is helpful to have the final average marks available to one decimal place. At 58.5 the student would require at least 8 more marks (in the affected module) to reach 59.5, whereas at 59.4 the student would probably require just one more mark to reach 59.5.

  • If the student achieved their highest mark in the affected module, the case for using discretion is weak at 58.5, while Boards would normally use discretion at 59.4 (even with a PEC rating of 1).
  • If the student achieved their lowest mark in the affected module, the case for using discretion is strong at 59.4, while the case for using discretion at 58.5 would require strong PEC Committee support (unless there were additional, non-PEC grounds).

Recording grounds for using discretion

  • The Chair of the Board of Examiners should seek the Board’s agreement to the grounds for discretion in each case and should minute the agreed grounds.
  • Grounds for discretion might be (but are not limited to):
    • For degree class: medical/personal circumstances, the overall profile of individual marks, exceptional performance in a particular module, progressive improvement during the final stages of study (but only when the stage weighting is 1:1), advice from externals.
    • For passing modules: medical/personal circumstances, overall strength with passes in most important modules in a subject area, marks returned on a given module are low, student would have passed by compensation had they not been absent from another exam with good cause.

Bear in mind that, while a student benefitting from discretion is unlikely to appeal, another student might appeal and the Board would have to demonstrate consistency. In such a context, the minuting of the use discretion is as important as the minuting of a refusal to use discretion.

Flagging the use of discretion on the mark sheet

  • Where there are failing marks which have been passed by discretion, this should be detailed on the mark sheets returned to the Examinations Office so that it is clear that the student is not required to be reassessed either in whole or in part. (see the module appraisal codes detailed in Appendix IA.) Explicitly, the decision to apply discretion should be made against each relevant module.
  • Code 3 — pass by discretion — should be used to indicate where discretion has been applied. This clearly distinguishes those students from others who have a right to progress ‘notwithstanding’ failed modules because of compensation rules (code 2).

Recording decisions where discretion was not used

Bear in mind that a student might appeal on the grounds that you should have used discretion. Your position will be stronger if you can demonstrate that you have followed the regulations and that your decision was reasonable.

  • For final year students up to two marks below a borderline, it is important to minute that consideration has been given to the overall profile of marks, to exceptional performance (or lack of) in significant modules, and (when the stage weighting is 1:1) to progressive improvement in performance.
  • It is reasonable to refer to the ‘normal practice’ in respect of the factors above, but it is important to note that ‘normal practice’ cannot be used to set aside either the letter or the intent of the regulations. Nor can ‘normal practice’ be used to act in a way that would generally be regarded as unreasonable. In neither case would the support of external examiners be sufficient justification.
  • It is important to minute that you have given consideration to any PEC recommendations. You will need to give more detail in the minutes if the student was subject to a strong PEC recommendation and / or was close to a module or degree class borderline.
  • If there is evidence from the marks that forms part of the case for not using discretion, it is important to minute this.

Resolving the need for individual consideration with the need for consistency

  • Each case should be considered on an individual basis in order to avoid creating a precedent, and the Chair of the Board of Examiners should be prepared to defend its decision in the event of an appeal.
  • Whilst the Board should not create de facto rules by use of discretion, it should nevertheless apply discretion in a consistent manner. For example:
  • If a Board recommends the award of an Honours degree to a candidate failing 30 credits in the final Stage it needs to have some grounds, such as overall strength or the passing of important modules. It should not then fail another candidate who fails 30 credits and meets the same grounds (although it may point to significant reasons for failing the latter and it should minute these). Nor should it thereafter consider a precedent set whereby all candidates averaging 40+ overall and failing 30 credits are passed.
  • An Undergraduate candidate with an overall average of 58. If the grounds for recommending the award of a II.1 by discretion are that the final year average is well over 60, then the Board should ensure consistency in considering another student averaging 58 overall by considering whether the same grounds would apply to the same extent, but it should not thereafter consider a precedent set whereby all students averaging 58 overall are awarded a II.1. Word of warning: such grounds are not strong where the final stage already carries more weight than the preceding stage.
  • It is acceptable to develop School or Subject guidelines on the use of discretion, in the Board of Studies for example. Such guidelines might be termed ‘normal practice’. Consideration can be given to such questions as:
  • Which modules are covered by the exercise of discretion on the grounds of exceptional performance?
  • What in such circumstances would constitute exceptional performance?
  • What sort of profile is required to justify the award of a higher classification to a borderline candidate?

In developing School or Subject guidelines on the use of discretion, Boards of Studies need to remember that any internal guidance is additional to rather than in place of the examination conventions and must be compatible with them. They should also be mindful that information about local guidance may need to be made available to candidates who appeal or make an FOIA request.

Considering discretion for awards

  • Note that discretion is NOT restricted to the consideration of candidates who are 2 percentage points below a boundary.
  • The main circumstances where the Board might award a better degree are:
    • To recommend the award of a higher class of Honours or Master’s degree classification to a student who qualified, as of right, for an Honours or Master’s degree.
    • To recommend the award of an Honours degree (of any class) to a student registered for an Honours degree who does not qualify, as of right, for an Honours degree.
    • To recommend a Master’s degree, Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate (of any class if the award is classified) to a student registered for this programme who does not qualify, as of right, for an award.
    • To recommend the award of a Higher Education Certificate, Higher Education Diploma or a Pass Degree to an Undergraduate student who does not qualify as of right for this award.
    • To recommend the award of a Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate to a Master’s student, or the award of a Postgraduate Certificate to a Postgraduate Diploma student, who does not qualify as of right for this award.
  • Where an undergraduate candidate fails more than 20 credits the exercise of discretion is required to award any sort of honours degree. The Board does not have to award the classification which the weighted average implies, even though a listing of candidates in order of weighted average might give this impression. For example a candidate with a weighted average of 51 and 40 credits of fail is strictly only entitled to a pass degree. Therefore the award of a third class degree requires the exercise of discretion and is a legitimate outcome. The candidate is NOT entitled to the class of degree indicated by the weighted average, because the candidate has not met the requirements for the automatic award of an honours degree. It may help to consider the hierarchy of awards in rising order -HE Certificate; HE Diploma; Pass degree; Third Class Honours.

When an undergraduate candidate is being considered for a Higher Education Certificate (for example), the student will be entitled to an HEC if they have passed at least 120 credits with at least 90 of these being at Level 4 or above; this is regardless of the circumstances (Convention R66 simply lists the most common circumstances) and regardless of failed core modules.

Examples of cases where a Board might consider using discretion could include a student failing a core module who would have passed if compensation could be applied to a selection of 120 credits, not necessarily in the same stage. In particular a Board may award an HEC by discretion in circumstances where it is not thought appropriate to pass Stage 1 by discretion or to pass modules by discretion. A specific example might be a student who had failed one or more  modules that would have been passed by compensation if the modules had not been Core.

A Master’s or Pg Dip student starting in 2014/15 who fails up to 20 credits of non-core modules (and passes all others) will be entitled to a Pass provided they have an overall average of at least 50. On a classified programme, the student will not be entitled to more than a Pass, but the Board may use discretion to recommend the award of a Merit or Distinction if it has reasonable grounds. Such a student who fails more than 20 credits or who fails a core module will not be entitled to an award by right, but may be recommended for an award (of any class on a classified programme) by discretion. The same principle applies to a PgCert student, but with 10 credits the threshold. When applying discretion, be aware that a student might gain an entitlement to a higher award following reassessment and they should not be deprived of that opportunity.

 

Considering discretion for modules

  • When a module is passed by discretion, Convention N58 dictates that the mark used by the board of examiners shall be the pass mark; this includes the current board meeting, it is not referring solely to future calculations. In particular the mark should be regarded as 40/ 50 in considering whether other modules are passed by compensation (Conventions J35-38 / K39-41). The board of examiners should be aware that passing one or more modules by discretion might, in some cases, lead to any other failed modules being passed by compensation.
  • The Board of Examiners should be careful to avoid double counting discretion. For a pre-final year student, and for a postgraduate student, a pass by discretion leads to the pass mark being used for that module in calculating the overall average. Therefore a PEC Committee recommendation should not normally be used to both pass a module by discretion and make a higher award.

Considering discretion for progression

A Board of Examiners may use discretion to allow a student to progress despite not having the academic right to do so.

  • A common example in undergraduate programmes will be passing a Stage, notwithstanding fails. Typically this would apply to a Stage 1 or Stage 2 student who has failed up to 20 credits of non-Core modules on two occasions. Applying discretion to pass a stage ‘notwithstanding’ does not have any implications for individual modules, so the transcript records the actual (fail) marks, but without any flag indicating that individual modules have been passed by discretion. Nevertheless, the transcript must record that the stage, as a whole, has been passed by discretion. Sections 6 and 7 of this guidance give further information.
  • A less common example would include progression notwithstanding failure in more than 20 credits. It is particularly important to consider whether the decision to apply ‘progression discretion’ will have any impact on the student’s ability to progress normally on the degree programme in future stages. Discretion should only be used rarely in such circumstances and always for a very good reason. It is not intended that Boards routinely allow students to progress in such circumstances.
  • For Integrated Masters programmes, there is a threshold at the end of Stages 2 and 3. By default students must achieve stage averages of at least 50, but Degree Programme regulations may stipulate more stringent requirements (Integrated Masters Exam Convention H30). A Board of Examiners may use discretion to allow progression on an Integrated Masters programme, even when the threshold is not reached. From 2014/15, there is a requirement that Boards of Examiners formally consider the use of discretion to allow progression whenever a student is within 2 marks of the threshold.
  • In taught Masters programmes there are often progression decisions made at the end of the taught component; these will sometimes be made by the Chair on behalf of a board of examiners. A student may be permitted second attempts even when they have failed more than 40 credits at the first attempt. When such decisions are taken at the end of the taught component, the decision is either to allow a student to take resits and to proceed to the dissertation or to allow neither. There is no provision for allowing resits but not allowing the student to proceed to the dissertation. Neither is there any provision in the regulations for delaying the start of the dissertation until the outcome of resits is known. However, if there is a parallel PgDip programme, a student may be permitted to change programme before being allowed discretionary resits.