Assessing assessment: struggles to control course content and examination

Political meeting at Sussex, 1971.
Political meeting at Sussex, 1971.

Discontent had been brewing amongst Sussex students for some time over different issues regarding education at the university. Concerns cropped up for various reasons, among both Arts and Sciences students, and the subsequent struggles went on to question not just the function of the examinations they were resisting but the role of examination, assessment and ultimately of the university itself in capitalist society.

Submitted by Ed on February 6, 2011

There were quite a few struggles around course content and assessment in this period. However, due mostly to not being a professional historian or having a wealthy philanthropist to subsidise my research, I’ve had to limit this study to three struggles, all taking part in the 1971-72 academic year. Firstly, I’ll look at the boycott of preliminary examinations (prelims) by Arts and Social Studies students. Secondly, I will look at the boycott of the same exams by students in Biological Sciences and the emergence of the ‘Biology Co-op’ group. Finally, I will analyse the struggles of students in International Relations over more control of the actual content of their course.

Prelims boycott in Arts and Social Studies

It’s probably useful first to explain exactly what the preliminary examinations were. The prelims were exams which students had to sit at the end of their first and second terms at Sussex university. The prelims particularly irked first year students who, even if satisfied with the course content and focus, still felt the prelim examinations were fundamentally pointless. Chris Sinha, a Sussex student at the time, mentioned in his study of the boycotts that:

“Many students were dissatisfied with the courses themselves, for differing reasons, but even those students satisfied with the prelim courses were in many cases completely opposed to any assessment of them, seeing the examination of the prelims courses as a waste of time, which had no connection to the rest of the course”1

This discontent led to 25 students taking the Introduction to History course to boycott their prelims at the end of the first term in December 1971. Their only demand was the abolition of the preliminary examination. There were neither further demands nor an elaborate critique of capitalism or the university. It was merely a refusal to take part in an assessment which they felt had no benefit for them.

There was also no victimisation of the students taking part and so more boycotts were organised for the second term. Again, students taking the Introduction to History course organised themselves but this time they were joined by students from Language and Values (Philosophy), Critical Reading (European Studies) and Aspects of the Modern Industrial System (MIS).

The biggest confrontation came from students on the MIS course. About 50% of the students from the course refused to take the exam and the campaign had a high active involvement from its base (approximately 30 students meeting regularly to organise it, compared with 14 on the Introduction to History course).

According to Sinha, the second round of exam boycotts in the Arts and Social Studies courses also began to develop a more explicitly political analysis:

“During the campaign, discussion groups and seminars were held to criticise the content of the course. Out of these discussions, critiques of the courses which were being boycotted were formulated”2

As Unionews (the student union’s newspaper) reported, “Discussions were held during the three days of the [MIS] exam, on the course and assessment in general”3 and common demands were formulated by the boycotters. These were:

1.The ending of all assessment
2.The right to do collective work
3.No three hour papers
4.Reduction of units assessed4

By now the boycotts had grown to a point whereby the university could no longer ignore them. As well as students on the courses already mentioned, I also came across a leaflet declaring that students of English and French had taken action and that the Philosophy faculty had refused to do pass/fail grading in the preliminary examinations. The action of the rebellious students had compelled the Sussex authorities to take some form of action against them. The university authorities sent letters to the parents of the misbehaving students informing them of their child’s defiance and threatening them with punishment. In the end, no more than two of the boycotting students were put on the Vice-Chancellor’s list.

Furthermore, the exam boycotts had been a massive success. In the first two weeks of the summer term, the committee of Arts Deans met and decided that terminal assessment was unnecessary for the preliminary courses. Indeed, as Sinha noted at the time, in consequence of the boycotts, “there is now no terminal assessment for MIS, History, Language and Values, or for most of the school prelim courses. The examinations office now has nothing to do with prelim courses”5 . Though grading remained, the scrapping of these exams was a massive victory for Arts students at Sussex and, as we shall see, they were not alone in their triumphant attack on exams at the university.

Prelims boycott in Biological Sciences

As well as the exam boycotts in Arts and Social Studies, boycotts were also organised by students in Biological Sciences. The reason for the students’ discontent was similar to those of Arts: having to sit an arduous examination process which seemed largely pointless to their actual understanding of the subject. However, no doubt due to the less overtly ideological nature of their courses, the anti-prelims campaign in the Sciences focused far more on teaching methods and assessment rather than course content (at least at first).

A meeting was called and attended by between 40 and 80 students to set up what was to be known as ‘The Biology Co-op’, concerned with promoting co-operative work in their courses and agitated amongst their fellow students to boycott the examination process. About 30 students eventually became fully committed to the idea of the co-operative and took part in its organising activities.

It would be in April of the second term that the big showdown between the science students and the university would take place. There were six papers: two biology, two chemistry and two maths. Successful boycotts were organised in the biology and chemistry papers with half of the students refusing to co-operate with the exam procedure. As Unionews reported:

“Fifty percent of the Biology Class (38 people which included Biologists, Biochemists, Experimental Psychologists, Neurobiologists and Geographers) refused to sit the Prelims, choosing instead to take the exam papers out of the room, work on them collectively and hand in the completed scripts with self-assessments”6

The prelim boycotts in the Sciences were extremely well organised. There was an agreed procedure for all the exams: first, the boycotting students walked into the exam hall, picked up their papers and left. Next, the boycotters formed discussion groups which went through the paper together. Finally, at the end of the discussions, the students filled in and submitted to the university a) some comments on what was gained from the group discussion, b) a self-assessment sheet indicating areas of difficulty and c) comments on the course content and presentation. We can only imagine what the university management thought when half their first year Biological Sciences students turned up after skipping their exams and handed in a sheet with gentle suggestions on how to improve the course for next time!

Certainly, the Sussex administration was not as amused by these actions as me. Possibly due to the backdrop of the Arts boycotts and the general unrest at the university that year, the university took a much harder line on the Sciences boycotters. All were told they must re-sit the exams. 18 refused and were put on the Dean’s list except for three who were put on the VC’s list. These three were forced to sit the exams or be thrown out of the university. All three sat the exams and passed.

However, though the reaction of the university was harsher on the science students than on those in Arts (one student was even pressured by his grant-awarding Local Education Authority to sit their exams), the prelim boycotts here again won key concessions regarding the form of assessment (most importantly, the preliminary exam being scrapped). Of course, though the prelims were replaced by new methods of assessment, the scrapping of the prelims still represented a massive victory for the students in fighting pointless examination procedures.

The struggles of students in Arts and Sciences represented discontent with the forms of assessment, which then spilled over into varying degrees of criticism of the course’s content. However, the 1971-72 academic year also saw the struggles of students whose starting point was their dissatisfaction with the ideological nature of their course itself. One such struggle was that of students in International Relations.

Campaigns in International Relations

The impetus for the struggles in International Relations (IR) came from under- and postgraduate students who were attempting to start understanding IR in a way that opposed the dominant ideologies that had hitherto been taken as a given. Students began to recognise the important position which the university fulfilled in imparting capitalist ideology in society, especially in a subject like IR, dealing as it did with the interrelationships between capitalist states.

This movement of IR students began with the meeting of regular, extra-curricular, IR Student Seminars of somewhere around 20-25 students. These seminars began based around general themes like “What is IR?” and “Is it worth studying? If so, why?” These discussions would discuss the defects and problems which these students had with conventional IR and attacked it as being “wrapped in the tight shrouds of western ideology and tainted with myths of the cold war”7 .

From here, the students attending these seminars compiled an ‘alternative bibliography’ and designed new IR courses, put together with the intention of analysing world affairs from an anti-capitalist perspective. They also put together an anonymous assessment sheet so that students could express their views of the course to faculty.

At some point in this period, a vacancy for professorship in the IR department became open at Sussex and the students of these seminars began to campaign to be able to choose (or at least have input into) who would get the job. Indeed, there was extremely high activity amongst students in this campaign with more than half of the IR student body agreeing on the criteria which any new professor would have to fulfil.

One of the main criteria was that any professor chosen for the job should be “a person of politically radical ideas with a highly critical attitude to contemporary affairs”8 . Other criteria were things like Third World orientation and an awareness of non-state actors in IR. One final and major criteria was that any candidate chosen must not come from any established government institution (such as the Institute for Strategic Studies). A list of preferred candidates was handed to the university. 80% of IR students were surveyed on these criteria and 70% of those surveyed were in favour of the criteria put forward.

In the face of this sentiment, the eventual selection of Coral Bell (from the Institute for Strategic Studies!) was a massive slap in the face for IR students. 90% of them opposed her appointment and the subsequent opposition led her to brand the students as ‘left-wing McCarthyists’. The irony of having a conservative figure of authority branding a popular movement as ‘McCarthyist’9 was obviously lost on her.

Sadly, these campaigns in IR were defeated. Professor Bell kept her job and overt confrontation with the IR faculty was not really to resurface. Though the students had irritated their faculty, unlike their peers who had boycotted their exams, they had not taken any decisive action to show the university that they were not merely into taking opinion polls. This is was what decided the fate of their campaign.

However, as a quick aside, it’s probably worth mentioning that this part of my research took a while for me to get my head around, mostly because of the vast change in the ideological landscape in IR both at Sussex and academia generally. As a former student of IR at Sussex, my experience was that it was one of the ‘lefty’ departments, with a significant Marxist tendency amongst the faculty. It took me a while to get my head around the idea that the department could be attacked for lacking a critique of capitalism and non-state actors in IR. However, it was these days which saw the beginning of an ideological shift within IR (at Sussex and elsewhere) to criticise the liberal/realist dominance within the subject. That the IR of those days was so unrecognisable to me when compared to the IR of my experience is testament to the struggles of its students in this period (as well as the workers and peasants of the world who themselves forced this re-examination).

Postscript to the struggles of 1971-72

Again, I really can’t stress enough that the events described above represent a fraction of the struggles that have taken place at the University of Sussex around the presentation and content of its courses. However, due to a lack of time and resources, other campaigns, which I saw mentions of but with very little detail, have been neglected. It’s a sad fact that these movements often leave very little evidence of their existence beyond their leaflets and the memories of their participants.

However, one thing which was abundantly clear was that the prelim boycotts and IR campaigns did not end in the summer holidays of 1972. Rather, they were the beginning of a continuing discussion around the role education plays in society. The 1971-72 struggles questioned the fundamental nature of how education is organised in this society and the 1972-73 academic year saw several articles in the pages of Unionews presenting an alternative view on assessment.

There were also prelim boycotts in the 1972-73 academic year. For instance, one action saw 50% of students on the Statistics course boycotting their preliminary exams. Also that year, there was a meeting of students and faculty which put forward several demands such as the abolition of grading, the right to decide course content and for a general assembly to be the final arbiter in university affairs.

From the humble beginning of just refusing pointless exams, the students went on to question who controls the university and for what purpose it is put. And further, through their actions, they experimented with how it could be different. They questioned the necessity (and in some cases even the possibility) of putting a percentage on their understanding. And when they felt it wasn't necessary, they asked what purpose it served to constantly do so. And finally, they asked whether education could only be about improving their position in the job market, or if it could be for learning about, questioning and changing the world they lived in. In the end, what they wanted was not just a 'different approach' to education in a capitalist society but a radically different society where education existed for its own sake.

These facts become relevant today when we look at how universities are being pushed in the opposite direction, turning increasingly into competing businesses producing skilled workers and research for the economy. Raising tuition fees, cutting unprofitable departments, promoting 'marketable' research areas and the increasing shift towards undemocratic, corporate management styles are all symptoms of this tendency. When we oppose this, we're expressing the opposite tendency, the common feeling that there should be more to education than just getting young people ready for work. The struggles over course content and assessment at Sussex in the 1970s were, to my mind, the development of this tendency taken to its logical conclusion.

The involvement of faculty in supporting the students was also a hugely important development and had lasting effects. In the aftermath of the prelim boycotts, a group of supportive faculty got together to form the Radical Faculty Action Group (RFAG). Again, due to my lack of resources, I was able to find very little on what was almost certainly a very interesting collective. However, issue #30 of Focus (a sort of analytical journal covering social and political issues, produced at Sussex university) was given over in its entirety for RFAG to put forward their view of what “socialist education” would look like. They summarised their proposals in the introduction:

“As priorities we propose:
:arrow: An open university – lectures, library, arts centre, sports facilities, faculty time to be open to the community. The whole university, not just part of it, to be a centre for continuous education
:arrow: Positive discrimination in student admissions in favour of schools and people in deprived areas. A decisive move towards more adult entrants. Percentage of public school entrants to be drastically cut
:arrow: No compulsory or competitive exams – no classification in other forms of assessment. More collective and more co-operative work
:arrow: More interdisciplinary courses, growing organically out of problems and interests and crossing traditional arts/sciences boundaries
:arrow: No status distinctions (i.e. lecturer, reader, professor and their parallels) among faculty and administration
:arrow: All university employees, academic, clerical, manual, administrative, technical, to be paid according to the same criteria of need”

Of course, we shouldn’t romanticise about Sussex in this period. There were also some downright reactionary views amongst the student population as well11 . However, the preliminary exam boycotts marked a very important development in the radicalism of students at Sussex university. In refusing to cooperate with the exam procedure, those students refused the individualising and competitive nature of education in capitalist society. They embarked on a refusal of capitalist education’s function to turn out skilled workers for the labour market, preferring instead to put education to the simple use of advancing our understanding of the world around us (as well as to reorder it in a more egalitarian manner). As one leaflet of exam boycotters put it:

“We recognise that the role assessment plays in the university is one of social control. It is the overriding form of discipline which ultimately forces the student to conform to the already decided upon system of teaching and course structure. Assessment reinforces the hierarchical structure of society as a whole.”

These student struggles, in what they opposed and how they opposed them, pointed towards a different educationalism based around cooperative rather than competitive work, interdisciplinary collaboration rather than arbitrary separation and research dictated by interest rather than ‘rational’ market forces. Indeed, those wishing to look into alternative pedagogies to those of capitalist orthodoxy would do well to add the struggles of students and education workers against their own institutions to the studies of ‘free school’ experiments such as Summerhill. The struggles against assessment at Sussex outlined here are certainly a good place to start.

  • 1An Assessment of Assessment – Chris Sinha (p. 13-14)
  • 2ibid. (p. 14)
  • 3Unionews, 4th October 1972
  • 4ibid.
  • 5An Assessment of Assessment – Chris Sinha (p. 14)
  • 6Unionews, 11th October 1972
  • 7Unionews, 24th January 1972
  • 8An Assessment of Assessment – Chris Sinha (p. 20)
  • 9When actual McCarthyism was in fact a conservative figure of authority attacking popular movements. Joseph McCarthy was a US Senator who went on a campaign of 'exposing' supposed communists and communist-sympathisers in the American government and, later, 'McCarthyism' would be used to describe anti-communist witchunting in all walks of life.
  • 10Focus #30, May 1973
  • 11“We, the higher educated, are the only hope that society has got… [Change] isn’t going to come from the working class. They are poorly educated, badly treated and accustomed to using their power only for short-term gains. So it is up to us.” – ‘Our Union: What role?’ by JT Frayne, Focus #27, November 1972