Externals are all fired up

August 27, 2004

A new breed of young enthusiastic external examiners has emerged in UK universities and colleges during the past decade, a study has revealed.

But academics who visit other universities to ensure common standards in marking would prefer to be paid a standard wage for their efforts and get more recognition for their work from their home institutions.

These are the main findings of a report produced by Plymouth University professors Harold Silver and Andrew Hannon as part of a wider appraisal of the external examiners system across a selection of higher education colleges and universities.

Professor Silver said: "We found a surprising amount of goodwill and loyalty to the system, and external examiners are no longer senior, famous professors interested in sherry and lunch only."

Instead, the academics found examiners to be mainly "dead keen, enthusiastic, young academics with great diversity and motivation".

The findings represent a turnaround in many of the views expressed ten years ago when a similar study highlighted confusion over the role of examiners and fears that academic standards were inconsistent across the higher education system.

The insecurity and crisis of ten years ago has disappeared, according to Professor Silver. "Nobody raised the question of deteriorating standards directly," he said. Today's examiners still complain that the job is not simple or uniform, and that work often coincides with marking duties at their own institutions. But the main bugbear is inconsistent pay rates.

Fees paid are believed to range from £250 to £1,250 per visit, for a range of duties.

External examining is a unique part of the quality assurance system for undergraduate teaching in the UK.

Academics are not forced to be external examiners, but the work is perceived to be beneficial for career prospects as well as providing a way of finding out about courses and teaching methods at other institutions.

There is no register or exact tally of external examiners, although it is estimated that about 30,000 to 40,000 academics undertake the work, compared with 10,000 to 15,000 a decade ago.

Many examiners consulted in the latest study stated that even within their department, knowledge about who was and who wasn't an external examiner was sparse and erratic.

National guidelines and benchmarks issued by the Quality Assurance Agency has helped to clarify the roles of examiners.

Examiners are now less involved in changing individual student marks and act more as monitors and validators of procedures, although there is still some uncertainty about the precise boundaries of the new roles.

While the majority of universities are neutral about their staff being external examiners, considering it to be part of their professional duties, some of those consulted in the study reported that their vice-chancellors did not consider external examining to be part of their university's duties.

Providing a national support network for external examiners will become the responsibility of the new Higher Education Academy from September.

Conclusions from the wider project have yet to be reported. The academy is expected to recommend improvements to the induction and development of external examiners, and suggest ways to ensure consistency of good practice is encouraged and recognised.

Enquiry into the Nature of External Examining and other reports in the wider consultation by the Learning and Teaching Support Network can be found at  www.ltsn.ac.uk/genericcentre/index.asp?id=21234

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