Externals plan knocked back

September 20, 2002

Funding chiefs have been set back in their plans to introduce a compulsory national accreditation scheme for external examiners.

Instead of the compulsory system backed by ministers and the funding council, Sir Ron Cooke's teaching quality enhancement committee has proposed a voluntary system in a draft report published this week. Compulsory and centralised accreditation would impose a new bureaucratic layer that would "risk losing the goodwill and professional expertise of a great many dedicated members of the academy", according to the committee asked by the funding council to consider the plan.

The THES reported in July that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had asked Sir Ron's group to develop the plans, amid concerns that the current system, in which externals are employed directly by institutions to provide a check on quality and standards, was too informal.

In August, the Quality Assurance Agency reported that two external examiners at Luton University had agreed and signed off exam results even though they later said that the standards were below the pass mark threshold at comparable institutions.

Hefce told the committee to consider plans for national training and induction of externals, accredited through membership or fellowship of a "college". This week, Sir Ron's committee said: "The external examiner system relies ultimately on the professional expertise and goodwill of staff in higher education. It would not be sensible or productive to upset the balance of this achievement."

The report says externals are "a crucial part" of the quality-assurance system. But they are, in essence, volunteers, working with little pay for the sake of the good standing of the academy.

The committee said the role of externals was already being enhanced. Under the quality-assurance audit regime to be introduced later this year, universities will publish summaries of all external examiners' reports, which QAA auditors will verify. The QAA has also made clear that institutions should not expect positive audit reports without showing "strong and scrupulous use of fully independent external examiners".

The committee said it would support a voluntary scheme in its final report, due in December.

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