Myth belonging to another age

July 19, 1996

British universities may be moving closer to their European counterparts in terms of numbers, but one aspect of university life remains different. The British system has been premised on the notion of equity between institutions, the belief that a degree in law from the University of X and one from the University of Y are equal in standard, despite the differences in funding and facilities between institutions. And the key to this system is the external examiner.

To ensure that standards are maintained and equality is preserved, examiners from other institutions oversee the examining process. Degrees are awarded in a class: a first is a run of marks over 70, an upper second between 60 and 70, a lower second between 50 and 60, a third between 40 and 50 and a fail below the 40 average. That is the basic principle but institutions have all sorts of ways of moving round that numerical system.

I have been an external examiner in literary studies in many places for many years now. It has often been interesting but it has also been time-consuming, boring and frankly depressing. For the role of the external examiner is changing, as the face of British academic life changes. Degree programmes vary hugely and so do examination systems. Different institutions have completely different regulations governing the ways in which degrees are awarded.

A few variations in degree structures that I have come across in recent years: University A awards degrees on five papers, three of which must be of the higher class for that degree to be awarded. So for an upper second a student needs to obtain a mark of 60 or above in at least three papers. A candidate obtains a run of marks which include a 72, a 68, a 59, a 57 and a 56. The lower degree is awarded because the regulations will not allow the mathematical average of 62 to count in the candidate's favour. Had the 59 been 60, there would have been no argument. Yet those with a mathematical average of 61 obtained by marks of 60 on four papers and no first class marks are awarded the higher degree unproblematically. University B has a policy of automatically upgrading every borderline mark. Few people ever obtain third-class degrees. The student from University A would have a clear upper second degree here. University C has a policy of automatically raising a mark if there is a medical certificate.

The practices are so diverse that it is absurd to suggest that a degree obtained in one institution equals a degree obtained in another. I have seen firsts awarded in some places that would have barely scraped an average of 52 in others, and I have seen students awarded low 2.1s who would have scored over 70 elsewhere.

Some institutions try to involve the external examiners in course design and development, as well as in the nitty-gritty of examining. Some send a wide range of scripts, and all are expected to make everything available for the external examiners' scrutiny. But here again there are divergences: the task of sorting and sending out papers is carried out by an elected examinations secretary in most places and that is a heavy administrative burden. The task rotates among the academic staff. Some people take the job seriously and provide the external examiner with full documentation. Others are terrible. They send out papers late, lose scripts, forget to record marks, add up wrongly, waffle their way through difficult questions at the examination board meetings.

The prized British system of the external examiner is coming to an end. It has been a great system but it cannot be sustained as the student population rises and institutions compete with one another for students, altering their regulations and bending quality control criteria.

What is needed instead is a rethinking of examination procedures within each institution. The best system I have seen allows several elements to count towards the final assessment of a student's degree - examination performance, course work, oral performance in tutorials, estimated marks and actual average of marks and any medical criteria submitted by the student. All this information is discussed in extended examination board meetings. Nobody could say that justice was not done in every single case in this university.

This system depends on scrupulous records being kept within the department and the role of examinations secretary is considered as equivalent to one third of an academic teaching load throughout the year. Some universities would reject such a system out of hand as being too time-consuming. It is also a system that is so well-organised internally that it does not need an external examiner to validate the marks awarded.

I often feel, after a finals board meeting, that students would be horrified if they had any idea of the plain ugly horse-trading that goes on in order to determine the final classification of a degree. The presence of the external examiner is no help at all at such times, and merely serves to provide an illusion of justice being done, while the inadequate procedures of a department ensure that all kinds of injustices are perpetrated. The parity of standards across universities, which the external examiner is supposed to uphold, is no more than a myth belonging to another age altogether.

Susan Bassnett is a professor in the centre for British and comparative cultural studies at the University of Warwick.

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