External examiners: expert viewpoint or out of date?

Real challenge from an outside expert can propel valuable change, but do external examiners still provide a valuable critical eye for the marketised UK university sector? Six scholars offer their views

July 26, 2018
Man with glasses
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With the frenzy of marking season over in the northern hemisphere for another year, academics can finally get stuck into their research – and even contemplate going on holiday. But some UK academics in particular have already racked up a considerable number of rail miles, and even enjoyed a night or two in a cheap hotel, in their capacity as external examiners for another university.

To its supporters, the system of external examination guarantees consistent marking standards and the sharing of best practice in teaching and assessment around the sector. And those who carry it out, for little more than reimbursed expenses, a free dinner and perhaps an after-hours trip to a bar of ill repute, do so out of a sense of duty and collegiality.

But is their work still necessary – and are they still able to carry it out effectively? Or is external examination now an anachronism whose rationale has been swept away by university expansion and student consumerism? Here, six academics with experience of the system have their say.

Four men tasting alcohol

‘After the examiners’ dinner, never go to a bar called something like the Jazz Cafe for “just one more”’

When you are first invited to be an external examiner, you feel the weight of responsibility: who am I to judge, you ask yourself?

But by the time this burden fell on me, I’d worked in a number of institutions and I’d also survived the tail end of the old University of London system. This involved a day-long departmental meeting (known as “scrutiny”) in which everyone looked over the exams you had set in excruciating detail, critiquing every question, clause and quotation. From a wonderful colleague, a scholar of Sterne, I learned a great deal about the dark arts of examining and unpicking the more delicate collegial problems the process involves (“Bob, you’ve given a 2:1 but your comments are perhaps a little more 2:2?”). But the cliché cruel but fair was coined for meetings like those. You knew you’d done well if a professor in some recondite field looked up from your script and murmured: “Good paper, good paper.”

The next few times you are invited to externally examine (“I’m sure you are terribly busy but we wondered if…”) it’s still a responsibility, but it’s also rather exciting. How do they do things there, you wonder? What are the differences? Why does every question begin with “to what extent and in what ways”? (The explanation usually begins: “Well, in 1993, Professor X argued that…”)

It’s a bit like being with another family on a big occasion: you are simultaneously in it and at one remove. This is when you do your duty to your discipline and admire the amazing administrators and exam officers, always under pressure, who make the system work. You quickly develop the special vocabulary (“share good practice”; “calibration”; “robust systems”; and, my favourite, suitable for seeming grave on all occasions, “a serious matter”). And you learn the informal rules that go with the role: how to tiptoe around the 20-year feud between Dr X and Professor Y – and, even more importantly, how to decline invitations, after the examiners’ dinner, to go to an underground bar called something like – I fuzzily recall – the Jazz Cafe for “just one more”.

As you become a veteran of external marking, you may get a little irritated at the universally low payments you receive. You may become more choosy, and respond to invitations with different self-directed questions: why should I judge you? Your motivation may become less about inspecting some of the great battleships of our university fleet and more about reflecting on your own practices by looking over the intellectually exciting and pedagogically innovative degrees offered by the nippier and more exciting frigates (ahoy, English at Lincoln!).

External examining is like mycelium, the underground threads of fungus that are vital to any ecosystem. Unseen, unpleasant to look at (or think about), mycelium binds soil together, decomposes plants, feeds the creatures that live there and renews the atmosphere. Without external examining, the whole academic environment would be very much poorer. But remember what I said about not going to underground bars.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent book is Brexit and Literature: Critical and Cultural Responses (2018).

 Man sniffs from trough

‘In place of external examining as it currently operates, let’s introduce more rigorous programme reviews’

External examining is no longer fit for purpose.

The problem is not the increasing numbers of student assessments to review or degree programmes to check. It is the failure of universities to increase their resources for external examination in proportion with the sector’s expansion. They largely still pay the same paltry fee for the same few hours of externals’ time as they always did.

The result is that, apart from for dissertations, externals can rarely alter individual marks any longer. They simply don’t have the time to go through them all. So they are limited to either agreeing with everything, warts and all, making some systematic adjustment to marks, or calling for everything to be done again. In my experience, they typically approve just about everything without change, confining themselves to making various comments – usually enormously helpful – on how modules and programmes might be improved further.

Some colleagues argue that we should turn back the clock. If external examining is becoming too much of a rubber-stamp process, we need to increase the powers, time commitment and remuneration of externals, so they can do the job they once did. However, it is unclear how many colleagues would be willing to take on such an onerous task, even with greater compensation.

The right-of-centre thinktank Reform argues that national standards should be guaranteed by pegging the distribution of degree classifications on particular courses to their students’ performance in national final-year assessment for each subject. This would seemingly cut out external examiners altogether, but it is a thoroughly bad idea as it would stifle innovation in curriculum design while encouraging teaching to the test.

Universities all claim to engage in some form of research-led or informed teaching. Yet many regulators and managers place research and teaching in different silos. If teaching should have parity with research, then it is high time it was considered in tandem with it.

So I’d propose a US-inspired approach. Let’s leave the annual ritual of marking and exam boards to academic departments and universities. In place of external examining as it currently operates, let’s introduce more rigorous programme reviews, involving external input, every five or so years. Crucially, these would consider a department’s teaching and research strategies together, in terms of how they cross-pollinate to shape the curriculum.

Such reviews could feed into departmental planning and be of even more use than comments in the truncated tick-box forms used by examiners at present. What we have is formal sign-off that all is well; what we need is genuine challenge to improve.

Bureaucratic micromanagement for its own sake is not the road to climbing international league tables, reassuring students that their education is world class, or assuring employers that our graduates are ready for any challenge. It’s time we moved on.

Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School.

Fixing engine

‘We do it conscious that without such self-sacrifice, the system would grind to a halt’

The recent marking season was not particularly unusual for me. A few quick sums suggest that I first-marked around 150,000 words of essays, moderated about 25,000 more, and read around 60 exam scripts, also for moderation purposes. These were then checked for anomalies at our internal exam board meeting, and finally approved at our final board of examiners meeting.

I am also preparing our department’s documentation for the university’s latest research excellence framework review. I have a pile of referee reports yet to be written and a 300-page PhD thesis to examine. Then there is the book review I somehow enthusiastically agreed to co-write (despite on numerous occasions having promised myself never to agree to write a book review again) – with a colleague who is now waiting patiently for me to get on with it. What could have possessed me to add to this list external examining at two different institutions?

Unlike most of the “optional extras” we take on, external examining is at least paid. But the scant reference to this fact in the dreaded “please be our external examiner” emails, from apologetic and somewhat desperate fellow mid-career academics, reflects a shared understanding that the paltry sum on offer will be poor recompense for the loss of precious time that might otherwise have been spent on finally getting around to some research – even if, as was promised to me recently, the external examining is to be done in a room “with a view”.

But we do it nonetheless, conscious that without such self-sacrifice, the system would grind to a halt. It’s not all bad, of course. It can be interesting to see what colleagues are teaching and how their students are performing, and some of the dissertations you get to look at are really quite good. And sometimes you catch an error that can make a real difference to a student.

However, in many institutions, the days are gone when an external examiner might actually be able to recommend any changes that would really matter to that year’s marking. Many universities are adopting increasingly mechanised, discretion-free processes for classifying degrees and dealing with borderline cases, and external examining is happening at a stage in the process when marks are all but set in stone.

So I do wonder sometimes whether there is still any point in gathering so many academics together, in a final exam board meeting, to witness the application of unbending rules to spreadsheets of marks. Still, we get to go out for dinner. And the room sometimes comes with a view.

Mary Leng is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of York.

 Examining a portfolio

‘I see my encounters with external examiners as opportunities to talk about my work with pride’

The visit of the external examiner is usually met with some degree of trepidation. It’s human nature to feel nervous when you are being examined or assessed in any way.

However, I was always that student who annoyed everyone by declaring that I actually liked exams – and the external examiner’s visit is very much an academic’s own exam day. In both cases, if you are well prepared, all should go smoothly.

I see my encounters with external examiners as opportunities to talk about my work with pride. They are also an opportunity to exchange ideas and share best practices. As a result of external examiner feedback, for instance, I now provide a detailed coursework marking grid for the entire module team; this has improved the consistency of feedback and resulted in far fewer student queries about marks. It is also pleasing when your external declares that they have picked up a few ideas from you.

So, while the UK university landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade, I’m glad that external examiners are still willing to spend their early summers trekking across the country for little more than the cost of transport to scrutinise the work of students and academics at other institutions. They are an academic’s critical friend, asking the questions you didn’t think of, challenging you to think about why you set a particular assessment and whether that assessment is fit for purpose.

External examining is an arduous role, but it is more essential than ever in a high-fees era in which students see themselves as our clients. They expect to leave with at least a 2:1 and they often query their marks.

The external examiner’s input, underpinned by its steadfast principles, also ensures that when fake news talks of “dumbing down” or “grade inflation”, as it invariably does, it will be just that: talk. Externals’ input underwrites employers’ trust in university standards. So new graduates can step into the workplace with pride, confident that their degree really means something.

Karen Kufuor is principal lecturer in economics and quantitative methods at the University of Westminster.

  Row of microscopes

‘At its best, external examination is a brilliant peer review system’

The natural sciences are an exercise in the evaluation of evidence relating to how the natural world functions. Typically, they establish not so much certainty as a consensus around what is more likely and what is less likely.

In this respect, they do not differ from the humanities – even if the UK education system often fails to make this clear to students until what can be, as a result, a rather unsettling final undergraduate year. And with research projects and final exams testing not only level of knowledge but also ability to problem-solve and evaluate evidence, it is not surprising that science departments rely just as heavily on external examiners as those in other faculties do.

At its best, external examination is a brilliant peer review system, which ensures consistent standards in both teaching and research degrees, and the exchange of best practice and innovation in teaching (none of this can be reduced to a simple metric or two, because intakes, course contents and research are never homogeneous). And while it involves a huge amount of work, external examiners treat it as part of the service to the broader community that academics should engage in – and they hope to pick up new teaching ideas along the way.

Externals on taught degrees lay down challenges – module-specific or more wide-ranging – and often make suggestions about how these can be met. They expect universities to respond to these challenges, if not with direct action then at least with open discussion about whether the matter is actually a problem.

For instance, an external once requested that we incorporate greater problem-solving into assessments on a taught component of a master’s course. Easy for the external to say, but my module involved teaching physical scientists the basics of biology – I saw little scope for problem solving. Some months later, though, I figured out how to do it. The result was spectacular. The social effect of the challenge was to knit the student body together as, for a term, they engaged in large amounts of discussion in their social time. And the assessment (an essay) was a pleasure to read and mark.

Unfortunately, in some universities the external examiner has been largely sidelined, at least regarding wider issues that need to be tackled. No matter how many externals make obvious points about, for example, over-assessment, little is done to address them.

This is due to the growth of other intramural efforts to deal with teaching quality, such as the recording of lectures and the use of learning analytics. Such innovations might sound fine in principle, but they are often underresourced and self-serving, and are not student- or module-centric. Moreover, they lend themselves to a far greater level of centralised diktat. This can even result in a decline in teaching standards when, as in the case of the recording of lectures, their introduction is not based on evidence of efficacy.

The result is that the entire UK education system is at a crossroads. We need to choose between these two parallel systems of ensuring consistent assessment standards. The direction we should opt for is obvious.

David Fernig is professor of biological chemistry at the University of Liverpool.

Beefeater checks uniform

‘There is no longer any such thing as “broadly comparable” degree standards across the British higher education sector’

Some decades ago, as a mid-career academic, I found myself propositioned by a variety of UK-based higher education institutions to become one of their external examiners.

At first I felt flattered, even important. Then reality burst in upon me. There I sat, next to the chairperson of this or that board of examiners, permitted occasionally to make a comment on the academic standards that had been brought to bear upon that year’s finalists, and being required to tick a series of checkboxes in which I attested that these standards were “broadly comparable” with (a) those at my own institution; (b) those at similar institutions; and/or (c) those that obtained “nationally” (even, at one HEI, “internationally”) in my subject area.

These experiences came to a sudden end when, at one such meeting, I took it upon myself to remark that the level of English language proficiency in some of the scripts I had been sent was questionable to put it mildly, and that, therefore, these particular candidates should be marked down. I was told in no uncertain terms that it was not my job to alter grades on individual scripts, but merely to comment on the sample overall. And when I threatened, in retaliation (so to speak), not to tick the academic standards checkbox, it was made clear to me that in that event serious consideration would be given to terminating my contract – or, rather, to not renewing for a further two years a contract that was limited to 12 months.

The widespread modularisation of degree programmes has helped bring about a fundamental change in the role of the external examiner. Once upon a time, externals could claim to have surveillance of the academic performance of an entire cohort of students, having scrutinised the question papers and assessment briefs, seen every script/assignment, and moved grades up or down as they deemed proper. And their word was law.

This system grew to maturity in an age when class sizes were small and departments ran entire degree programmes. Massification has brought the curtain down on this snug world. Today the external is at best an umpire – endeavouring to ensure that procedures are adhered to and that schemes of assessment do not significantly favour one group of students over another.

The Quality Assurance Agency would have us believe (Quality Code, Part B) that externals “provide carefully considered advice on the academic standards of the awards, programmes and/or modules…and can offer advice on good practice and opportunities to enhance the quality of those programmes/modules”. Note the word “advice”. Externals advise. They no longer adjudicate.

In the US, there used to be an external-examiner system, but it broke down at the time of the Civil War and has never been reinstated. This has not stopped the nation from nurturing many of the world’s leading universities.

There is no longer any such thing as “broadly comparable” degree standards across the British higher education sector. This moribund fig leaf should be discarded, along with the external-examiner system that affords it a completely spurious legitimacy. 

Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.

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Print headline: Outsider, looking in

Reader's comments (3)

It’s a shame that this article not only did not invite a contribution from the Graduate Standards Project led by Advance HE and focussed on professionalising external examining but it is not even referenced
Thanks Chris, AdvanceHE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) has devised and piloted with a range of higher education institutions a professional development course for external examiners designed to help to maintain degree output standards and their reasonable comparability across the UK higher education system. This is currently being rolled out across 26 institutions. This project, which is managed by the Office for Students on behalf of England and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales, is exploring, across those three nations, sector-owned processes focusing on professional development for external examiners. For further details of the project and how to get involved, please go to https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hefce-degree-standards Geoff Stoakes, AdvanceHE
As I sit here on a Saturday reading a rather large pile of scripts, moderation reports and spreadsheets of marks I also wonder whether the system is worthwhile. On the other hand, when externals come to my own institution I really value their guidance (and occasional plaudits) for the work that we do here. It is also a genuine opportunity to share ideas and good practice and I think anyone who has been working in one institution for more than ten years should take on an external examining role as it is a refreshing experience.

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