Externals set to bow to Hefce's scrutiny

July 19, 2002

External examiners face accreditation by a new national college as part of a plan to increase central control over degree standards.

Under the proposals, seen by The THES , external examiners would be inducted and trained, possibly through the government-backed Institute for Learning and Teaching. They would be accredited through membership or fellowship of an external examiners' "college". Non-members would be barred from working as externals.

Ministers are thought to want a tighter grip on degree standards and assessment procedures amid concerns that universities will escape rigorous scrutiny under the new "light-touch" quality assurance regime to be introduced next year.

But vice-chancellors and experts have called the plan a counterproductive waste of time and money. They say it is an affront to their freedom to appoint external examiners.

Details of the plan emerged in a letter from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to Sir Ron Cooke, vice-chancellor of the University of York, who is chairing a funding council working group on quality enhancement.

The author is Stephen Marston, who has just returned to work for the Department for Education and Skills after a secondment to Hefce as its director for institutions.

Mr Marston wrote to Sir Ron on May 16. He said that the light-touch quality assurance regime placed unprecedented emphasis on universities' own internal quality assurance and so brought "the external's examiner role into even greater prominence".

"It is important that the parties concerned do what we can to secure that examiners are supported in carrying our their responsibilities to a consistently high standard," he said.

Mr Marston said the "core concept" would be "to offer well-regarded induction and periodic refresher training for external examiners".

He said training could be provided by the ILT or the Higher Education Staff Development Agency. He added that accreditation "might be in the form of membership/fellowship of an external examiner's college or academy".

Over time, universities would be "expected" to use only approved external examiners.

Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University, said: "We vet externals very rigorously at Warwick since we rely on their judgement and expertise. An external body will devalue the process to such an extent that we might as well abolish the external examiner altogether. Nobody with any serious status will wish to be put on such a register.

"Could this be a way of trying to ensure that the ILT actually has something to do that might justify the public money spent?"

Roger Cook, academic development adviser at Napier University, said that there was "not the slightest bit of evidence" that the current system was failing.

Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean of the American Intercontinental University in London, said: "This encroaches on the academic autonomy of universities and represents an unwelcome extension of Hefce influence on academic standards issues."

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