Gloria Monday: External pain

Behold the upholders of standards – megalomaniacs who can’t count, writes Gloria Monday

July 13, 2009

Examination boards have been and gone again. They come around with incredible speed – as soon as one lot is over, the next looms over the horizon. What’s more, if there is ever going to be a heatwave, you can bet it will coincide with a three-hour meeting, and you can also bet that there will be the usual mean-spirited people who will try to stretch the meeting out as long as possible, enjoying their tiny moment of attention.

This year, because Brian is still swinging the lead, I ended up having to take the external examiners out to dinner as well. This is an annual ritual: you have to take them to a reasonably decent restaurant and pretend to be interested in hearing them pontificate about declining standards, where they are going on holiday and how unfair the research assessment exercise is to meaningful scholarship. That’s because the externals have power over you, and boy, don’t some of them know it.

This year there were two new ones. Two of last year’s intake were still with us – a balding professor with halitosis and a very posh voice from somewhere in the North East, and a pleasant, rather funny bloke who always talks about how he wants to retire early and move to New Zealand, but never seems to get around to it.

They were joined by a jumped-up youngster who spent the night name-dropping and boasting about how Yale University is considering his latest book on some incomprehensible theoretical stuff, and a mousy woman from a new university with a massive inferiority complex offset by a streak of spitefulness. Behold, the upholders of standards!

It was hardly a scintillating evening , but they did keep asking for more wine, and although our administrator, who was there to keep an eye on the budget, looked pained, I kept ordering. It doesn’t do to deprive your externals the night before the final board meeting – everybody knows that.

The next day, on what was later described by the tabloids as the “scorcher of the decade”, and feeling slightly worse for wear, we assembled for the meeting. On we went, reading out reams of numbers and names in a stuffy room. I switched off after a while, and thought about how I should have been out in the garden, trying to deal with a plague of greenfly caused by the dearth of ladybirds this year. I have been resorting to my grandfather’s old method of boiling cigarette ends and tipping the nicotine-tainted water over the roses. It works really well and has the added advantage of making us smokers feel we are contributing to the environment. Fond memories of my Grandad smoking his pipe in the greenhouse rose up from my subconscious.

Suddenly, there was a commotion. I snapped back into the present and tried as feebly as Michael Martin, the recently deposed Speaker of the House of Commons, to restore order. Unfortunately I had missed the moment when the row broke out, so had no idea what had triggered it. The mousy woman had obviously played some part in the uproar, because she was red-faced and trying to shout down one of our lot who was on his feet shouting back at her.

Miraculously, the row was sorted out by the quick thinking of one of our newest recruits, who has what is politely described as “numeracy skills”, ie he can add up. It turns out that Mouseface has the numeracy skills of my cat, and in any case the marks had been wrongly entered in the lists.

I managed to calm everyone down by praising the virtues of Dr M’s mental arithmetic, so the remaining two hours passed by with only the odd outbreak of mild dissent and some special pleading for the half-dozen or so useless students who came up with suspected swine flu as an excuse for not having done enough work – an interesting addition to the list of excuses.

The external examiner system is supposed to ensure fairness and the maintenance of standards. It’s a myth! Some of the people who act as externals do it so they can feel a bit of the power and glory they will never get at home; others are megalomaniacs; few of them understand how other people’s assessment systems work; and 99 per cent can’t add up. Sooner or later, in every exam board meeting there is a row about faulty information, inadequate figures or missing medical certificates that leads to external and internal examiners slagging each other off, with the externals always enjoying the upper hand and putting people down. Enough to make one want to use the nicotine treatment on far more than greenfly!

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