Fiction of national standards

August 4, 1995

There are 10,000 external examiner slots to be filled at any one time, but how feasible and desirable is the role? Harold Silver asks.

The key finding of the recent project on the future of external examiners commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council was the near-unanimous commitment in higher education to retaining the external examiner system. But the project also found great uncertainty in the majority of institutions about the external examiner's future role and about the willingness of academics to continue to do the job. Perhaps the most crucial question for debate now is how the external examiner relates to standards, especially at the undergraduate level.

External examiners have been involved in standards set for the award of degrees and guarantors of those standards in this country since the early 19th century. Standards have in this sense meant a consensus reached by internal and external examiners based on a number of assumptions. These have been largely about the possibility of identifying levels of attainment in a subject and across institutions which, whatever their differences, have been similar enough, with similar enough staffs and student intakes, curricula and forms of assessment, to enable consensus to be reached readily about courses and individual students.

The external examiner, whether used as an additional marker or a wise participant observer, was seen as legitimating that consensus, and every new institution entering the definition of "higher education" accepted the external examiner as a symbol of its legitimacy. Until the recent past there was no definition, no discussion, of standards, and over a century and a half external examining has been largely the object of a profound silence.

Changes in higher education, particularly from the 1980s, have been real and considerable in most universities and colleges, though public discussion has focused on changes at the levels of grand policy and institutional identity. Changes within institutions have, for example, included increased student numbers and wider student constituencies, modularisation and other structural and curricular changes, and changes in the roles and perceptions of academic staff. Associated with these are growing variations of declared "mission" by institutions - within and between "old" and "new" universities. Any one of these changes, let alone any aggregation of them, challenges the notion of "consensus".

Is there a consensus that the external examiner can now represent? Taking part in the mechanics of examining with expanded numbers, problems associated with semesters and assessment variations is, at the least, difficult. Sampling of assignments and scripts makes that part of the traditional role associated with fair judgements about students, at the least, questionable. Work-based learning, competence-based curricula and assessment, and different balances of "general" and "vocational" contents, can present a complication.

More comprehensive internal arrangements for responding to the requirements of external assessment, audit and accreditation raise concerns about the extent and purpose of external examining.

There are probably 10,000 or so slots filled or to be filled at any one time in British undergraduate external examining. Examination or assessment boards, operating at different levels and in different ways, may process anything from a handful to a few thousand progressing or final award students in a single day. There are questions still to be asked about the desirability and feasibility of the role. Hence the ambiguities.

Everyone wants to keep external examining, but in different ways. Everyone wants external examiners, but there is increasing difficulty in persuading people to do it. People asked want to do it, but are under pressures which dissuade them. No one puts payment as the first consideration, but everyone mentions the "unprofessional" pay and lack of recognition. Everyone wants to strengthen external examining, but no one is clear how. With limited, and eventually probably no, exceptions the old basis on which external examiners shared in a consensus about standards has vanished for ever.

A new understanding is needed, and the elements emerging as a basis for it seem to be the following: First, accept that institutions' operation of their standards will take place within national frameworks of guidance and scrutiny (hopefully not regulation). Second, accept that institutions will operate their standards within diverse missions and interpretations of the kind of higher education experience they offer students.

Third, accept that within those two frameworks institutions will adopt appropriate structures and procedures, promulgate appropriate regulations, and offer explicit profiles of their approaches to teaching and assessment, their academic and student support systems, their approaches to students as learners, their expectations of students, their purposes, and the intended outcomes of the educational experience.

Fourth, accept that external examiners will operate at the intersection of their experience and the processes articulated by the receiving institution. What the external examiner brings is a subject and wider professional experience and commitment. What the institution offers is a set of procedures that lead to decisions, in which the external examiner can, at best, assist the institution to arrive at its own consensus on the basis of processes prepared through its professional development, student involvement and internal validation.

The consensus ceases to be that unspoken cluster of traditional assumptions (though not as legitimate as may once have been thought) underpinning the detailed work of the assessment board. The consensus becomes instead one of acceptable procedures, which external examiners test, and to which they contribute, by their familiarity with the course intentions, planning and operation, student opinion, staff competence, assessment validity, and the processes which lead up to and include the assessment board.

The only possible role at the board is to witness the procedures, and perhaps be available for an occasional difficult decision or appeal, for which outside experience may be helpful.

This consensus in the operation of standards therefore has only two components: one, the external examiner's scrutiny over a period of years of the validity of the procedures; two, the consensus of the internal assessment process, to which the experience of the external examiner in subject or wider frameworks may have a contribution to make. Any other semblance of consensus could only be envisaged on the basis of national curricula or core curricula for higher education which is both impracticable, and unacceptable.

An approach based on the realities of a diverse system allows for the different backgrounds from which external examiners come, and the differences of institutional and course definitions and practices with which they interact. Such a model can operate whatever the future of external scrutiny or of honours degree classification. It means continued strengthening of internal procedures and solving the difficulties of external examiners' time, pay and recognition.

It means abandoning the idea that external examiners can guarantee and represent "national" standards, and substituting a vision of external examining as a process at the unique intersections of their own experience and the values and processes of particular institutions. There is no virtue in attempting to link the external examiner with fictional "threshold" or other "national" standards.

Harold Silver was leader of the project, The External Examiner System: Possible Futures, conducted by the Open University's Quality Support Centre and commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council.

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