What should the role of external examiners be in future? The Higher Education Quality Council's report this week articulates what everyone has known for some time: that the external examiner system can no longer be plausibly described as effective in calibrating standards across higher education: that the idea of a single standard has in any case become meaningless: that the system is open to abuse when examiners are chosen to ensure supportive feedback.
But it also underlines the vital importance of external examiners in maintaining and improving the quality of work in higher education. Using outside experts - be they academics from other institutions or knowledgeable people from the relevant profession or industry - is one of the best ways of ensuring that institutions do not become introverted, isolated and complacent. There are no fiercer critics of each others' work than academics and no critics whose views are taken more seriously.
Increasing workloads, proliferation of modules, more project work and the growing diversity of courses available in higher education has made traditional external examining impractical - as is evident in art and design (page 4). There is neither the time nor the money to do the job properly.
Furthermore it has become pointless to try to maintain a system designed to ensure that all courses in a given subject are of the same standard whereever they are offered. They probably never were, though the convenient fiction held while the Council for National Academic Awards vetted all public sector courses. In a mass system with a growing diversity of students, courses and institutions, such a claim only invites ridicule and loss of public confidence.
However, as the traditional external examiner system has crumbled, its failings nicely chronicled at the University of Poppleton, new ways of involving outside experts have been growing in the ruins. Departmental reviews have emerged as the most effective means of assessing and enhancing quality and a crucial characteristic of departmental reviews is the involvement of outsiders. Within the privacy of such reviews outside experts can be both merciless and helpful.
Furthermore, instead of it being a failing that these outsiders are recruited from among those who share the objectives of the department, it is wholly appropriate. There is little point in an institution which is aiming to compete in the world league involving academics from institutions with few top-flight students and little research. They are liable to be overly impressed. Better to bring in peers from comparable institutions overseas.
Similarly it is pointless to involve high-powered pure research types, who are most at home supervising PhD students, in assessing the work of departments that do a large amount of sub-degree teaching and are closely geared to locally based practical professions. It would be better to bring in people from the industry concerned.
Such use of external experts is however hampered by the quest for the grail of comparability of standards across the whole of higher education. Politicians may want to be able to reassure resentful constituents that all degrees in history are the same really and they need not feel done down when their swans fail to make it to Oxbridge. But it is clear from the HEQC report that higher education no longer acts in ways designed to ensure such comparability. Institutions prefer to chose peers who, to quote 1066 and All That, "will understand". If this can readily become too cosy, that is something which should be addressed. But bidding time turn back is not the way to do it.
Setting standards is, however, a crucial issue, as Clive Booth said this week (page 4). Where students are following courses that lead to a licence to practice, the profession concerned rightly expects to be involved in accreditation. The Engineering Council has done some of the best work in this area and its model could serve as the basis for other professions.
The possible role of quangos are less reassuring. In particular that of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, especially if it is to be merged with and, inevitably, dominated by, the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Council. The Government's direct intervention this week in the detail of the curriculum for the training of teachers is the worst possible way of doing things and spells the end of autonomous self-regulating professions, Burke's small platoons so vital to the plurality of society.
Involving professional bodies in accreditation for vocational courses is however the easy bit. What of non-vocational courses? Inevitably with these subjects much will depend on the prestige of the institution rather than any particular set of facts or skills mastered. The THEShas argued for the involvement of subject associations in considering how standards might be defined. This provides another way of capturing the benefits of external involvement without some of the present - or threatened - drawbacks.
Subject associations should not leave the field vacant much longer. Pressure for clearly defined standards - for a description of what people can be expected to know and do if they have completed a particular course - will not go away.
We need a new structure for accreditation of courses where ever they may be provided - and if Douglas Hague is right (THES, May 24) the places they will be provided in future may be many and various. This, after funding, is the most vital issue now facing higher education. It is one on which there is, as yet, woefully little debate and where the risk of government imposition is great.