External examiners are supposed to ensure the quality of UK degrees, but Alison Utley finds they are being attacked as outdated and inconsistent
External examiners are under scrutiny. Questions are being asked about their effectiveness, particularly after the Luton affair this week, in which students were awarded degrees despite external examiners saying that standards were weak.
Proposals are afoot in funding council circles to force them to join an accrediting "college", possibly through the Institute of Learning and Teaching.
And the Quality Assurance Agency is exploring confidence in the system. It is re-examining its code of practice, which has long been a central plank in securing the quality of degrees nationwide.
The QAA wants to know if external examiners are equipped to uphold the gold standard of the British degree and is due to report later this year.
The practice of bringing in examiners from other universities to oversee marking is virtually unknown in the rest of Europe and is used only selectively elsewhere.
"There are a great many approaches to the way external examiners are used in different institutions and even in different parts of the same institution," said Nick Harris of the QAA.
"And while it would be wrong to assume that one size fits all, we do need to be clear that the responsibilities on both sides are understood so that institutions can be confident of securing standards."
Critics believe that the principle of external examining is applied so inconsistently that it can no longer be assumed to be an effective safeguard of quality.
Some examiners have criticised the QAA code, which was devised two years ago, as too vague, and the agency is said to be ready to make changes.
Sir Ron Cooke's task group, reporting for the Higher Education Funding Council for England on quality and standards in higher education this year, felt strongly that more should be done to explain to those outside higher education how the external examiner system works. It recommended that summaries of external examiners' reports be put on universities' websites along with analysis of their findings and action taken in response. Universities should also state their policies on the appointment and use of externals.
David Young, head of policy development at Universities UK, said that although there may be "some lapses", there was still strong support for the general principle of the external examiner in British universities.
A series of QAA seminars around the country is examining the tasks that external examiners are asked to carry out. Practice varies considerably.
Mr Young said: "There is no doubt that there are anxieties about escalating workloads, mainly because of modularisation. This means external examiners are having to visit institutions several times a year, which, with increasing research and teaching pressures, is a major issue."
More external examiners would certainly be helpful, he said, and they could be briefed more efficiently. Better use needed to be made of the internet to deliver scripts to external examiners, he added.
Training was also an issue. Professor Harris said: "There are certainly many different approaches, and some are very detailed, including away-days for training. Others are not so formalised."
This area has been addressed by Stephen Marston, former director of institutions for Hefce, who has returned to the Department for Education and Skills.
He wrote to Sir Ron's group to say that the proposed light-touch quality-assurance regime brought the role of external examiners into "even greater prominence".
He suggested that external examiners should have "well-regarded" induction courses and periodic refresher training. This could be provided by the ILT or the Higher Education Staff Development Agency.
The QAA's code of practice on external examining states: "External examining provides one of the principal means for the maintenance of nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions.
"External examiners act as independent and impartial advisers providing institutions with informed comment on the standards set and student achievement in relation to those standards.
"External examining is therefore an integral and very important part of the institutional quality assurance."
'The system lacks national coherence'
David Head , professor of international business at Plymouth University, has recently turned down three approaches to become an external examiner.
"I am getting picky because the downside of external examining really needs to be addressed," he said. "There needs to be more standardisation across the board. External examining needs to be professionalised, otherwise we end up as little more than travelling mercenaries."
While money is a "big bugbear", there are other more fundamental flaws to do with differing responsibilities and the way the external examiner's comments are handled, he said.
"(One) institution did not respond to my comments on marking, the remuneration was risibly small and I had some scripts thrust into my hand for checking as the exam board was assembling."
In exasperation, Professor Head resigned the position.
John Kidman retired from full-time academia last year, but he works as an external examiner and has extensive experience in both old and new universities.
Although a fan of external examining, Dr Kidman believes the system is at breaking point and in need of overhaul to iron out inconsistencies surrounding the recruitment and training of external examiners.
"It is a bit farcical to pretend that there is some sort of national gold standard, or that a degree from university A is the same as a degree from university B," he said.
"The system has high expectations but no coherent structure at a national level despite the national guidance, which is too vague. Institutions can interpret the guidelines to suit their needs."
The guidelines, he believes, are unrealistic, unclear and allow the continuation of wide variations across the sector. In some universities, externals are the final arbiter and have the power to re-mark, while elsewhere they must not change marks but instead oversee standards of marking. Other institutions regard externals' main role as third markers or as resolvers of disputes.
Blind marking is another woolly area. Some universities use it across the board, others do not. And with the increasing use of orals and presentations rather than written assessments, external examining is more difficult to arrange.
Recruitment of external examiners is also a growing headache. Dr Kidman says the workload has risen significantly because the growth in student numbers has not been matched by expansion in the number of external examiners.
"In the old days, heads of departments encouraged their staff to become externals because it was a useful way of broadening their horizons and seeing how different universities approach assessment. Nowadays, workload pressures mean it has become much more of a chore."
Heads of departments often had to lean on people to persuade them to become an external, he said, partly because rates of pay vary enormously among the sector.
When Dr Kidman worked as an external in London with only a handful of students, he was paid the same as a fellow external who had responsibility for hundreds of students.
He said more coherence on the objectives and roles of examiners was required. "Universities want to jealously guard their independence, but the danger is that the need for a clean audit trail becomes more important than the standards of degrees. If we take the role seriously, the external examiner carries a lot of responsibility in ensuring fair play, which is what we are all aiming for after all."
Dr Kidman recalled one "external from hell" who insisted that a particular mark should be changed from a 2:1 to a low 2:2. As a result of the ensuing furore, all the scripts had to be re-marked and the matter was referred to the vice-chancellor.
"He read the essay in question and had to determine the mark even though it was not in his own field, which is a ludicrous state of affairs," Dr Kidman said.