Leader: Transparency's limits

October 20, 2006

The decision to post summaries of external examiners' reports on the Teaching Quality Information website was a headline-grabbing initiative that few expected to be worthwhile. Ministers wanted an early replacement for the scrapped Quality Assurance Agency reports and could not wait for their preferred alternative, the National Student Satisfaction Survey. The anodyne and inconsistent summaries that prospective students now largely ignore represent two wasted years, but at least the TQI review will put an end to them.

Welcome as that development is, it does not follow that externals' reports should be published in full. Transparency is an excellent principle, but full and frank discussion that is essential to this process might be constrained by wider publication. External examiners must feel able to give their verdicts, warts and all, without fearing that they will damage a department with which they have a close working relationship. The details of the review's proposals have yet to emerge, but they must not turn critical friends into bland observers of the type suggested by the TQI summaries. External examiners were the bedrock of quality assurance long before the QAA and will remain so long after it has gone. There is a case for giving departmental student representatives access to their reports, but the circulation list should end there - in the interests of future applicants.

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