A college of external examiners will give Whitehall the control it yearns for, says Geoffrey Alderman.
The letter that Stephen Marston (then director for institutions at the Higher Education Funding Council for England) sent to Sir Ron Cooke, vice-chancellor of the University of York, on May 16 represents a sinister twist in the story of Whitehall's seemingly relentless efforts to nationalise the assurance of quality in higher education. And to those university chiefs who are still sleeping, or in denial, or who have labelled me and those who think like me as irresponsible panic-mongers, it ought to act as a wake-up call.
We need to be clear about what Marston is proposing in this letter, written after "initial consultation" with Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Quality Assurance Agency. We also need to be clear about the implications for the sector.
The proposal of a college of accredited external examiners is not new. At a meeting between representatives of Hefce and UUK on November 9, Universities UK was asked to "take the lead in pressing" for accreditation and a "college". During the discussion, a "loose analogy" was drawn with aspects of the work of Ofsted inspectors.
What Hefce wanted was for UUK to take the initiative in triggering a chain of policy-related events that would result in the replacement of external examiners appointed by and answerable to institutions by an inspectorate appointed by - sorry, accredited by - an agency that, to all intents and purposes, would be under government control.
Hefce was not acting on its own initiative in attempting to seduce UUK in this way. Hefce is the tool of government, there to do its bidding. Marston was then seconded to Hefce from the Department for Education and Skills. Essex University vice-chancellor Ivor Crewe, chairman of the 1994 group of "old" universities, drew attention to this fact in a celebrated email in January, which was later leaked to the press. Marston, he observed, "was seconded from DFES, where no doubt his primary loyalty lies".
In his email, Crewe made a further, telling observation: "It is true that Margaret Hodge has made off-the-cuff remarks in favour of an inspectorate, but it would require primary legislation, ie precious parliamentary time and difficult debates in the House of Lords."
Whitehall, particularly the Treasury and the DFES, distrusts the university sector and is intensely irritated by its independence. It does not believe in the academic autonomy of institutions. It does believe that he or she who pays the piper should call the tune. Hodge has bought into this mind-set. She would like to see a national university inspectorate, but she knows only too well the truth of Crewe's analysis.
Hefce did not succeed in its attempt to seduce UUK. So another way had to be found of arriving at the same result.
Apologists might say that we have nothing to fear from the Marston proposals. Who would not want better training and induction for external examiners, the spreading of good practice and the insertion of better support mechanisms for the system as a whole?
I am not an enthusiast of the system, which is unknown in continental Europe and America. Universities in the US have never needed and do not need a network of external examiners to assure degree standards. My experience on both sides of the Atlantic leads me to conclude that they are right.
Whitehall clearly does believe in the external examiner system. But only in order to use it as a Trojan horse.
Geoffrey Alderman is academic dean of the American InterContinental University, London. He writes in a personal capacity.