Three-D Issue 21: Grade grubbing

S AllenSteph Allen
Bournemouth University

At certain times of the academic year, there comes a time of dread. This period of concern:the the obligatory essay hand-back. Students who have pored hours of their time considering the merits of one argument over the other, adding their own pearls of youthful wisdom, wait with baited breath for the grades that indicate they received the high-graded blessing of their academic. The marker and the student are connected by one indicator alone: either the paper meets the criterion or it does not. The anxious eyes of the tortured scholar looks only at the grade.  The face turns white. The grade is not what was expected. This must be wrong. It is wrong. The grade needs to be better. This grade must be changed.

S Allen quoteA meeting with the tutor. Explanations of grade allocation are given. The tutor, kind in imparting the news notes…Errors here, technicalities there, brief misinterpretation, lack of evidence, borders on plagiarism… all set out and discussed. Concerns about student absence in class are raised and countered with hosts of excuses… ill, late hours working to supplement loans, partying, hamster deaths, real deaths, love issues, health issues, parental pressure, lack of application, holidays, drugs, partying, visas, holidays, I worked really hard on this, I’ve paid loads for this course, you didn’t tell me the answers …. at least two will come to light.

Then comes the pleading. Please change my grade. Only the method is different: tears, pleading, threats, bribery.

Hidden away in the corners of academia across the UK, tutors and students politely argue over the marks, with students looking for an upgrade.  This is a familiar, but officially unrecorded story. Whilst formal Grade Appeal processes exist, students seeking to enhance their grades through an informal route is statistically unknown.

In a landscape where UK students commit to high loans in exchange for an HE product that requires academics to be supportive and guiding ‘gods’ with student grades for potentially questionable entry routes into an ever-changing technologically-driven employment landscape, questions are being raised as to whether more students will play a consumerist card for better grades or whether the historical principles of academic respect and the notion that the academics word is final still hold strong.

Grade-Grubbing in an informal term used by academics and students, recorded at least since the Vietnam War, to describe student behaviour in the face of received grades not to the satisfaction of the student.  Students dissatisfied with their grade approach the academic  concerned to negotiate an enhanced grade.

As part of my doctoral research at The University of Southampton, I am investigating the phenomena of Grade Grubbing with UK Higher Education since the Browne Review. The research will be the first in the UK to monitor such behaviours in light of a higher fee regime outside of formal institutional processes and will indicate to what extent students will play the consumerist card in this brave new world of UK higher education marketisation.

Views will be explored from the perspective of academics to find out how regularly this happens, circumstances around each event to what extent academics might acquiesce. To balance, student views will also be explored.

The full research is due to go live in the early Spring of 2014.Key themes: Education Expansion, Marketization of HE, Employment Landscape, Student as Consumer,  Credentialism, Academic Integrity and Rigour, Grades, Grade-Grubbing

If you would like to be involved in this or the next phase of this study, please contact Steph Allen on


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