Internal muddle of external role

May 7, 1999

The Association of University Teachers' complaint about payment for external examiners serves no one if, as appears from your report, it presents a disingenuous case bordering on dishonesty ("External examiners treated with shameful disdain", THES, April 30). The case is an insult to those who are paid below the minimum wage and fails to tackle the real professional issue of an appropriate load properly distributed.

As at least senior lecturers, no external examiners are paid below the basic minimum wage; they are all far, far above it. External examiners do not have their wages stopped because they are engaged in examining another institution's candidate in their own institution's time. Thus the additional payment is, effectively, an honorarium or gratuity. The diminution of the stature of the role that an argument over the size of the tip inevitably engenders should be avoided by applying a professional, contractual formality to the duty.

HE institutions have rejected the professional and logical solution of creating a register of examiners and making external examining a formal obligation for all suitably experienced lecturers. Thus we continue with a badly regulated and poorly supported casual system. Aside from the problem of "favours" and quid pro quo between colleagues in different institutions, this also means we have no adequate and nationally agreed criteria, guidance or training for examiners (though, presumably, Oxbridge will want to call this argument a threat to diversity).

Dearing's hope that academics would see themselves as carrying a collective responsibility for standards is yet again undermined by an attachment to mechanisms that have no rightful place in a system of mass higher education. The very establishment of the external examiner approach rejected the outmoded notion of communities of scholars acknowledging achievement without reference to external judgement. In seeking to confirm one's own judgement by adding the view of another, independent authority, autonomy was properly surrendered to the higher value of critical agreement. The real reward for all concerned lies in the enhanced level of security offered by an independent review.

Appropriate payment has been constantly denied for the ordinary academic and research work of higher education lecturers. That problem should not be addressed by seeking to improve the tips or by adding, as is now the fashion, curious and possibly dubious service charges.

Andrew Morgan Swansea

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