Examiners get into gear

March 20, 1998

Mike Cuthbert looks at the new role for the quality watchdogs

JOHN RANDALL, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, has identified the various roles for external examiners in the post-Dearing age. The main thrust is to reduce the burden on institutions of the requirement for external quality assurance from both the funding and professional and statutory bodies.

The duplication of effort and poor coordination between these bodies calls out for change. But the result could be to put too much of a burden on external examiners, who are after all full-time academics employed elsewhere.

As part of the Association of Law Teachers legal education research project a questionnaire was sent to all law schools to find out the views of existing examiners and course leaders for law.

More than 113 external examiners and 30 course leaders replied. Preliminary results indicate that although the changes are generally welcomed, there will be serious problems in appointing the right people to be external examiners.

What is the role of existing external examiners? Their recognised role since their introduction in the mid-19th century is to bring subject expertise to the assessment procedure. But with the spread of modular courses and semesters, the pressure has increased and some would say stretched to the limit. Universities have been required to establish their own robust quality assurance systems and therefore their expectations of externals has also grown. As some externals have reflected, there is no longer an "examination period".

To get the right combination of external examiners to cover all the modules and yet stay within the financial constraints puts pressure on heads of law schools and course leaders. In the survey the average number of externals was four to five and the average number of subjects an external was responsible for were nine. This includes the examination assessment but also coursework.

Sixty-six per cent of the externals said that their role had changed. The main reasons were more students, semesterisation and modularisation. The result has been more work and more time.

The present system relies on the good will of academics. It is surprising that 44 per cent welcome the idea of "Dearing externals" and that 43 per cent would be willing to take on such a role.

Those who had been involved in the last teaching quality assessment for law, and therefore have some experience of both aspects of the work envisaged, were much less interested. Only 26 per cent of course leaders thought that any of their existing external examiners would be interested.

Seventy-seven per cent of external examiners and 83 per cent of course leaders said that they thought there would be recruiting difficulties, principally because of the next research assessment exercise. The fact that external examining work gets no RAE credit influences not only the individual but also their home institution. Why get involved? Some externals feel that institutions will find it intrusive, which will make collaboration and dialogue while moderating examinations more difficult and create a barrier with the staff teaching on the courses.

External examiners generally have the experience and seniority that are valued by their own institution's quality assurance system. Presumably fairly senior personnel would be used which has implications for absence cover. Could an individual afford to be away from the institution?

Under the Dearing model there are to be three roles for external examiners: verification of the assessment decisions on students; serving the interests of professional and statutory bodies; and the new role of reporting to the QAA on the extent to which the university had met the outcomes for a particular course. Two issues are raised by the latter concerning training and the possible conflict of interest. Both have been accepted as important by the QAA.

In the survey only 21 per cent of external examiners had received any training in their role, although 57 per cent would welcome it. This has led to some wide variation in how the externals fulfil their role, notably in the value of their report to the course and the university. Therefore the provision of a clearer statement of their role and a benchmark for standards would seem to be welcomed.

Not all external examiners will have the "Dearing external" role, but will there be a conflict of interest for those who do? They would be appointed by the university and yet report also to the QAA and maybe a professional body. Their report would also give valuable information for students, parents, employers and even the media.

Such an external examiner would have to be able to contribute some subject expertise if the pressures on the other externals are not to be increased.

They will have to have broader experience and knowledge to give all the stakeholders information they need. There will be training, but will these individuals have the time? How much will they get paid?

The external examiner system is central to the quality assurance systems and practices of UK universities. The post-Dearing system of external peer review will continue that tradition but there will be a change in the type of person who can undertake that peer role. The well-established role of subject expertise will have to remain but the additional role of overall assessment of course objectives will involve a range of new skills.

If it is to be of any value it will have to take far more time. As one respondent said: "It is difficult for able and experienced people to find the time. Those with time often lack the skills and abilities."

Mike Cuthbert is seniortutor in law at Nene College, Northampton.

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