External examiners should be appointed centrally by an independent body rather than recruited directly by institutions themselves, a study recommends.
In a move to address concerns over “cosy” relationships between external examiners and universities, a new contracting process “managed by the sector but independent of institutions” should be introduced, says the Higher Education Academy report.
The study, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was published on 29 June alongside proposals to reform quality assurance processes.
Those plans suggest the creation of an external body to train and register external examiners, as well as degree “calibration” groups to ensure consistent marking practices.
That body would also assign external examiners to institutions, which currently seek out their own academics, the HEA report suggests.
The current system has led to a lack of exchange of examiners between mission groups, making it difficult to achieve comparability of standards, the report says.
At Russell Group universities, 80 per cent of examiners come from other research-intensive universities, whereas teaching-focused universities select 62 per cent of examiners from similar institutions and just 8 per cent from the Russell Group.
Several of the 602 external examiners surveyed for the study also said that there was a lack of comparability of standards across the sector, with some saying that there were “definitely different standards in different institutions”.
Others said that it was impossible to know about standards at other institutions given the limited chances to meet other external examiners.
While 88 per cent of examiners agreed that the system was “fit for purpose”, there was greater division over whether they could prevent grade inflation, with just 59 per cent saying that they could.
Many cited the impact of wider institutional policies to improve grades via adjustments to degree algorithms, which were “outside the scope of external examiner deliberations”, the report says. Nearly half the universities surveyed by the report had changed their algorithm in the past five years, it found.
“Individual courses can’t fight institutional policies and individual institutions cannot fight national trends alone,” said one examiner. “It would be misguided to think that external examiners can single-handedly maintain standards.”
Many external examiners also believed that there was too much variability in what institutions expect them to do. Some felt that they were a “critical friend”, able to advise staff, while others felt that they were “process checkers”, rather than being there to regulate academic standards.
“The role has been completely depersonalised,” said Christopher Exley, professor of bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University, who claims that external examiners now “tick boxes” and that “these days, little else is allowed”.
“The external is really only allowed to comment on whether due process has been followed and not on whether one set of arguments are more persuasive than another,” added Professor Exley.
That view is reflected in the report’s conclusions, which state that there is a “perception that examiners…are largely checking processes rather than standards”.
It concludes that there is “little evidence to support the view that external examiners are an effective means to safeguard academic standards”, calling for greater professionalisation of the practice, including more “equitable and appropriate remuneration”.