How much time and effort could have been saved if the external-examiner system had been addressed at the beginning of the quality debate rather than at the end, (Editorial, THES , August 8)?
As Lewis Elton reminds us (Soapbox), the weaknesses were well known. An effective, trustworthy external-examiner system must set parameters for institutional and academic freedom. University autonomy, for example, stems from its freedom to teach what it will with the staff it appoints. The limit on that autonomy concerns the licence to award degrees. Here, the public has a right to know that the licence is not abused and that the certificate maintains its currency. The external examiner's role is to ensure that one institution's decision to confer a degree in a discipline demands a similar standard of performance to that required at other institutions.
The question of academic autonomy is more difficult. There is a need for unfettered exploration and open discussion, but not the absurd assumption of a right to present one's beliefs as fact and to examine via one's navel rather than the knowledge base and criteria of the discipline.
Teaching and assessing students is different from learned academic debate and peer review. The journal article and open platform represent the edge of debate, whereas teaching and assessment are based on broadly agreed principles and knowledge. Assessing the research student straddles the two and calls for experience, integrity and a carefully designed procedure. Establishing a college or register of external examiners is a logical step. The standing of the examiner is, however, undermined by any assumption that s/he is answerable to the vice-chancellor or the chair of the examining board.