Don't go soft, tell the truth and shame the devil

April 1, 2005

Examiners have a duty not to whitewash their reports, argues Bob Brecher

As the external examining season gets into full swing, it's worth thinking about how we should meet our intellectual responsibilities as external examiners because things are not as simple as they used to be.

For the first time, our reports might enter the public domain because of the Freedom of Information Act ("Fo... Act could make external reports public", The Times Higher , March 4); and that, apparently, poses a problem. Should we always tell the truth? What will happen to our colleagues if our criticisms, be they ever so constructive, hit the webpages? Assuming that the brave new world of competition isn't (yet) tempting you to scupper a competitor by using the Fo... Act to create market mayhem, should your report be suitably anodyne - or should you say what you think? And, looking at it from the other side, should we be seeking the most compliant externals we can get, or should we continue to welcome the intellectual debate and honest criticism of genuine examiners?

Well, unless we're as confident of our excellence as our Oxbridge colleagues, who have never needed the sort of external scrutiny the rest of us do, I'd like to think we'll all stick to the principles on which the external examiner system is built. There's a real need to ensure that standards are comparable; and, even more important, that they don't collapse under all the various pressures to which they're liable. One reason is obvious: external scrutiny is, like peer review, a linchpin of academic integrity. And both are under threat: the former from those who are bureaucratising the system to make it serve the interests of the processors, the facilitators and the rest of the anti-educators of the Quality Assurance Agency; the latter from the research assessment exercise.

Perhaps that's enough to make the case. But whether it is or not, there's another important reason why we should avoid the temptation to be anodyne. Those institutions that are hoping to make external examiners'

reports exempt from the terms of the Fo... Act, or to ensure that only meaningless summaries of loaded questions ever see the light of day, are doing so because they're afraid of what the customers might think. In today's climate, that's understandable.

But it's the wrong strategy. It's one that feeds the alleged source of the so-called problem: punters' inability to distinguish the university from the supermarket. It patronises the public. Neither potential students nor their parents, advisers or careers teachers are idiots. Even worse, treating them as though they were idiots helps in the long run to make them such.

Of course league tables are crass. Of course genuine criticism can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Of course people can read what external examiners have to say as if they were giving marks out of ten on some TV popularity contest. But the best way to combat that is precisely to use such criticism to show that that's the wrong approach - in just the same way that students' evaluations that say their course is too demanding, or the marking too hard, should be feted rather than suppressed. They show that students are not being treated merely as customers and that their teachers are taking them seriously. And that's exactly what we should all be explaining to the general public. Rather than being afraid of the public and the truth, it's time for universities to come out and to challenge the assumptions on which that fear is built.

So if you're an external examiner, don't go soft. Don't agree to gagging clauses. If it comes to it, tell the university it must choose between you and a cover-up; and if it makes the wrong choice, go public. You owe that to the future of education no less than to yourself.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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