External examiners under pressure to uphold marks and avoid criticism

E-mails give credence to the view that 'league-table culture' is eroding quality, says John Gill

June 26, 2008

Academics have spoken out about their fears that the external examining system, the primary tool for maintaining academic standards, is being undermined and may no longer be fit for purpose.

Their revelations follow a lecture by Geoffrey Alderman last week, in which he linked a collapse in academic standards to a "league-table culture" in higher education.

Professor Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, accused managers of pressurising academics to mark up poor students to bolster the university's standing.

His comments struck a chord across the sector and helped bring to light several examples of how the external examiner system was being undermined.

One academic, who remains anonymous, wrote to Professor Alderman: "In my capacity as an external examiner, I attended an examination board yesterday.

"I had already made it clear that I did not agree with the marks which had been awarded in one of the modules - a number of scripts had been given first-class marks for an answer that was almost totally wrong.

"These answers would have merited a fail, or at best a third-class grade, at my own institution. I had three short meetings with numerous members of staff, but it was made absolutely clear to me that I had no authority to change the marks.

"What is the point in the external examiner system? Institutions behave in a most irresponsible and cavalier fashion with grades, while maintaining the facade of scrutiny with 'rigorous' and 'robust' systems."

In a second example, an internal e-mail at a post-1992 university sets out the criteria for choosing a "sympathetic" external examiner. "I think it is important that the examiner is sympathetic to and familiar with the challenges we face with regard to widening participation, retention rates etc, and would be constructive in their feedback," a manager wrote.

Reports of such practices appear to support Professor Alderman's claims that the external examining system is "not fit for purpose".

Another external examiner wrote: "At a university where until recently I was an external, externals were not permitted to alter marks or comment on individual scripts in any way.

"Their function was to comment merely on adherence to procedures. I complained about this repeatedly, to no avail. It is disgraceful misuse of the external examining system."

A fourth academic said: "One of the things that went on was that an MA course director openly called for us to pressurise our external examiner to change her critical report, which cited our low standards and poor quality of student achievement.

"The reason for this was because it would hurt our recruitment efforts. He went on to suggest that we ought to avoid appointing externals 'with these attitudes' in the future.

"Needless to say, that was the last year that this examiner worked for us."

Although Professor Alderman was not surprised to learn of more such activities, they did confirm his "worst suspicions".

He said: "The external examiner system is not fit for purpose, it is a fig leaf trundled out by Universities UK and it is time it was discarded. It needs a complete overhaul.

"One or two people said to me that in the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) code of practice it says that external examiners shouldn't be able to regrade individual scripts ... the QAA code of practice needs a root-and-branch overhaul, too.

"We must throw out of the window the external examiner system as the guardian of academic standards, because it ain't.

"We fall back on the professionalism of academics, which I basically trust, but that can work only when they have the academic freedom they need to exercise their judgment without fear or favour, and without vice-chancellors and others coming down like a tonne of bricks on them.

"In the US, they don't have an external examiner system - they did, but it broke down at the time of the Civil War. This is a system that has produced Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

"They don't have an external examiner system, but by golly they have academic autonomy. We need one or the other, or ideally both, but at the moment we have neither."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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