How to avoid the elephant trap

August 2, 2002

There is nothing sinister in accrediting external examiners - the danger lies elsewhere, says Lewis Elton

Geoffrey Alderman ( THES , July 19) thinks that proposals to accredit external examiners along the lines advocated by Stephen Marston, former director for institutions at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, constitute a Trojan horse.

I prefer to treat them as an elephant trap to be negotiated with care. Now that the Institute for Learning and Teaching accredits the teaching activities of both new and experienced academics, it seems perverse not to expect the same kind of accreditation for their examining work.

Examination rules have many irrational and indefensible features. Exam practices are also extraordinarily varied - from the freebooting tendencies of traditionalists such as Frank Furedi ( THES , July 5) to out and out positivism borrowed from the extreme competence model. Exams are not arcane academic exercises - students' futures depend on their outcomes. If the academic freedom associated with our external examiner system is to be defended successfully, it must first be made defensible. To fail to understand that amounts to falling into the elephant trap.

What is needed? First, as David Warren Piper argued in Higher Education Quarterly in 1988, on the basis of interviews with academics: "I think that without exception the respondents were people of notable intellectual sophistication, and I am sure that they had all thought deeply about their subject and its examination. They shared a strong ethic about examination standards and fairness to candidates. What they did not share was a knowledge of, for instance, the compelling evidence that has accumulated over the past 20 years or so that university examinations often fail to test the kind of learning that examiners intend. Some examiners had a poor grasp of quite simple statistical theory pertinent to the aggregation of exam marks. The decisions that they made as examiners were informed by experience rather than by theory or systematically collected evidence."

It is these points - "often fail to test the kind of learning that examiners intend", "a poor grasp of quite simple statistical theory" and "informed by experience rather than by theory or systematically collected evidence" - that show lack of professionalism. I wrote about the effect of this on grade inflation in the 1980s in the journal Studies in Higher Education in 1998: "Grade inflation is paradoxically due to a combination of changing courses and unchanging examiners, who lacked and continue to lack professionalism. Hence the phenomenon was largely (and possibly entirely) an artefact without reality."

To possess professional knowledge, rooted in extensive research, as well as the ability to put such knowledge into practice requires professional training. And the idea that such training should be provided by universities and accredited by the ILT - but not by the Higher Education Staff Development Agency, with its potential regulatory powers - seems perfectly sensible. In due course, universities would allow only accredited external examiners to practise. There would be no room for amateurs, however eminent they may be as teachers or researchers in their discipline.

What is unacceptable is that the choice of professional external examiners should then be taken away from universities, for that is part of their academic freedom. The idea of an external examiners' college is a step too far, particularly as there is a possibility that such a college might become part of the Quality Assurance Agency. If this is suggested once external examiners are professional, I will join Alderman in his efforts to rescue us from the elephant trap.

Lewis Elton is professor of higher education, University College London. His most recent work on student assessment was commissioned by the Learning and Teaching Support Network (generic).

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