Careers intelligence: how to be an external examiner

External examining will make you rich – in new ideas, that is, writes Robert MacIntosh

July 25, 2019
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Each university has the challenge of auditing its academic standards. In this process, external examiners play a vital role in calibrating academic decisions. So what do these guardians of academic integrity do? And should you become one if asked? 

Think about what universities are looking for

Most universities employ a small army of external examiners in a variety of capacities. Where programmes involve several disciplines, several externals will be involved. For research-based degrees, each student will be assigned an external examiner to read their thesis and, in most cases, to perform a viva. This sounds simple, but choosing external examiners can be problematic. Universities are keen to find qualified examiners while avoiding reciprocal arrangements to ensure an appropriate sense of independence. Academics can’t just ask co-authors or former colleagues, or buddy up with a partner university. Worse, taught programmes’ externals are appointed for a fixed period, meaning they would quickly run out of co-authors when faced with a steady stream of renewals. For research degrees there may be a limited pool of people with relevant expertise in theoretical content, empirical setting and methods.

Don’t spend it all at once

Whisper it quietly but the external examining system runs mostly on goodwill. The most recent doctoral thesis that I examined carried a fee of £200. The viva itself lasted about two hours, suggesting an hourly rate that you might anticipate if calling an emergency locksmith out on a bank holiday. However, these two hours mask the additional time required to read a thesis that will probably be the length of novel, to prepare a detailed critique of the work then submit a pre-viva report, to co-author a final report with the internal examiner and to travel to the viva itself. A more accurate, but less appealing, figure for the hourly rate turned out to be £9.09. After tax, external examining clearly isn’t about the money. For taught programmes the rewards might be a little more lucrative – for example at an elite business school – but don’t hold your breath.

Prepare for iris recognition

Before paying you anything, the host university will have to establish your bona fides. If you are in the UK, you should prepare yourself for the rigours of establishing your right to work under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2016. Set aside any ire generated by the observation that you might currently be employed by another UK university so might reasonably assume this could be taken as given. Be prepared to have someone verify your passport, request supplementary personal data to allow them to report on diversity and equality, and to confirm that you’ll be opting out of auto-enrolment in their pension scheme. Don’t factor the time taken to report this secondary employment with the tax authorities into your hourly rate, for fear that rate will fall below the national living wage.

Set boundaries

In research-based degrees, the external examiner tends to wield significant influence since they are more likely to be a subject specialist than the internal. In taught programmes, the power dynamic for externals is subtly different. The internal marking and second marking process should be presented to you in a way that defines your job as being to undertake quality assurance. Be clear on taking up the role that you don’t plan to adjudicate on borderline cases or where the first and second marker can’t agree a grade. Focusing your attention on the way in which decisions are reached rather than the individual decisions themselves will prevent an abundance of “wisdom of Solomon” type dilemmas. It is also a good idea to ask in advance when you’ll receive materials to review and how long you’ll be given to process them. Exam season falls at roughly the same time of year in most universities meaning that you could find a real spike in your workload just when (a) the sun comes out and (b) the World Snooker Championship takes on that annual strange allure.

Look and learn

Why did you volunteer for this demanding but poorly remunerated role? Probably because it would be impolite to refuse. A better reason would be to get a backstage pass to the inner workings of another university. Yes, you could say that you are giving something back to the university sector. Yes, you might argue that some CV collateral and an expanded network will enhance a future promotion case. But, in reality, the biggest benefit will be the chance to come back with ideas about efficient ways of handling large volumes of student work, about new forms of assessment and criteria for tough decisions such as honours classifications. You might as well take the opportunity to bring home some good practice and appropriate the credit for being an administrative innovator. You might just have enough money to buy yourself a good book.

Robert MacIntosh is head of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Sciences, where he is professor of strategic management. He blogs about higher education career and PhD issues at www.thePhDBlog.com.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Ins and outs of external examining

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