The Higher Education Quality Council is consulting universities on fundamental reform of the external examiner system - reform the council argues is vital if the system is to be of any value in the future.
A report commissioned by the HEQC from Harold Silver of the Open University's quality support centre reinforces earlier findings that the external examiner system has to be considerably strengthened if it is to safeguard quality and standards across higher education.
Roger Brown, chief executive of the HEQC, said that the move to a mass system of higher education had put the external examiner system under strain. "The new diversity, and in particular the growth of modular-degree programmes, have raised new issues and sharpened old ones," he said.
The council is asking the higher education sector to consider the purposes of the external examiner system; the validity of the roles played by examiners; and models and strategies for strengthening and improving examining practice. It argues: "A strengthened system can only be achieved by re-considering the system's fundamental aims and the legitimate roles to be played by external examiners in supporting these aims."
Guidelines on quality assurance issued by the HEQC in 1994 defined the dual purposes of the external examining system as first "to ensure that degrees awarded in similar subjects are comparable in standard in different institutions of higher education in the UK" and secondly "to ensure that the assessment system operated by an institution is fair and is fairly operated in the classification of students".
The consultative document argues that these two aims may not have been achieved for some time, and therefore questions whether they are still appropriate. In particular, it questions whether comparability can be assessed across disciplines.
The document also points out that this issue of comparability cannot be answered in isolation from the "graduate standards" study being carried out by the HEQC into threshold standards and mechanisms for their assurance, following comments about Government concern from former education secretary John Patten in July 1994. Until the sector is clear on the nature of standards, and on how far comparability can be assured, the role of external examiners in achieving these ends will remain in question, the report says.
In his report, Professor Silver defines four main roles for external examiners, but acknowledges that they often overlap.
Firstly, there is the "additional" examiner role, originally devised in the 19th century, when examiners were recruited for their disciplinary expertise to act as an additional marker, as a judge in the allocation of awards, as a commentator on a set of examination papers and to conduct vivas. These examiners operate in one subject area only.
Second, there is the "moderator" role. This role attempts to balance the traditional role played by external examiners with the needs of a larger and more diverse sector. These examiners rely upon sampling student work and often audit examination procedures, comment on assessment practice and contribute to course monitoring, including content and development. In this role, expertise in assessment practice may be even more important than subject knowledge.
Third, the "calibrator" role is played by external examiners when ensuring comparability of academic standards. Examiners rely on sampling in order to compare academic standards against other institutions and compare award levels in similar subjects. This role works at both the subject and the award level.
Last, there is the consultant role, where the examiner comments on course content and advises on validation or review panels. The HEQC consultation document points out that a conflict of interest may arise between this role and the other three.
The consultation document proposes three models on which universities could base their practice, and argues that the models could run alongside each other.
Model one is subject based, and is largely built around the role of the "additional" examiner.
Model two separates the role of examiners looking solely at one subject, with those looking at awards covering a range of disciplines as on modular degree programmes. At award level, examiners judge the overall performance of individual students and cohorts of students, comparing them with other awards at the same level and also look at how the awards are assessed.
In model three the external examiner is concerned essentially with "due process" in the conduct of assessment and examinations, and considers degrees at both subject and award level.
If institutions agree with these three models the HEQC will issue guidelines for good practice.