Monkey business

September 20, 2002

The new Quality Assurance Agency handbook expects audit teams to read all external examiners' reports for higher education institutions. What quality of report can they expect? If QAA auditors find them skimpy, indifferent, unfocused and pulling punches - could it be down to low and varying fee levels? Be paid peanuts, act like a monkey.

Examples from my encounters include: three years of students on a BSc, three days' preparation, two days' travel, £300; one-day emergency substitute examiner, £7; final-year at Birkbeck, three days plus one day's visit, £845; two modules per annum, one-day visit, minor component, £350. Is such variability in practice acceptable?

External examining can take up to a week. It includes moderating or working through exam papers; writing letters to examination officers; travelling; attending training and examination boards; reading borderline papers and dissertations; and carrying scripts.

If a professor is paid, say, £45,000 a year, an appropriate pro rata fee for a week's work should be a minimum of £1,000. From my examples it is clear that externals are paid a lower hourly rate than the national minimum wage.

Then there are the vagaries of the Inland Revenue. In your tax return you have to fill in a separate sheet for each external examinership treating the university as a formal, Schedule E employer. So you cannot be reimbursed for travelling to work for your employer.

Surely we need a national scale of fees?

Anthony Gale
Professor emeritus
Universities of Southampton and Portsmouth

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