Kingston showed ‘lack of regard’ for external examiner’s role, says QAA

But agency investigation finds no evidence of widespread problems with standards. Melanie Newman reports

March 26, 2009

A Quality Assurance Agency review of the case of an external examiner at Kingston University who was pressurised into changing a report on degree standards has found “no evidence” of widespread problems at the institution.

But the standards watchdog’s report says the case implied a “lack of regard” for the role of external examiners in maintaining academic standards.

The QAA report accepts that the examiner, who was scrutinising papers submitted by Kingston’s School of Music in 2003-04, had been put under pressure to alter her comments on the poor performance of some students. Her report answered “no” to a question about whether the students’ standards were comparable to those studying similar programmes in other UK institutions.

She added that the school had “over-rewarded” some students in comparison with national standards.

In an email sent to the school’s tutors, the director of its MA course commented that the external examiner’s report was “unfair and very damaging”, and could “mean the quality of students coming would sink further” if it affected recruitment. The email suggested that the examiner be asked to amend the report and concluded: “We must avoid externals with these attitudes in future.”

The acting head of school then contacted the examiner, who amended her report, answering “yes” to the question of whether standards were comparable. But her comments on over-rewarding remained in the text of the main report.

The QAA report says that a second external examiner on the course had also raised concerns about overgenerous marking in some modules. The university’s Assessment Report for 2004-05 referred to these concerns, but said Kingston’s Board of Studies felt it was “incorrect to criticise the standards of the degree on this basis”.

After details of the case were leaked to the press in July 2008, Kingston set up an independent review of its handling of external examiners, which was carried out by the registrar and secretary of Goldsmiths, University of London. This concluded that the university’s procedures were “clear and robust” and that the role of external examiners at the institution was “different from the traditional” one.

“This… accounts for some of the instances in which external examiners appear to report concerns about standards,” it added.

The QAA report notes that only “limited reliance” could be placed on these findings, as the reviewers had not contacted any of the external examiners who had raised concerns.

However, it concludes that the circumstances of the case had been strongly influenced by a requirement for universities to publish summaries of external examiners’ reports on their websites. As this is no longer required, it is “highly unlikely” that the circumstances would be repeated, the report says.

That the examiner’s concerns, raised over four years ago, had not in her view been adequately addressed suggests a lack of regard for the examiners’ role, it adds.

“It is important that the university takes the necessary steps to dispel any consequent suggestion that it does not ascribe sufficient importance to the views of individual external examiners,” it says.

To address these concerns, the QAA recommends that Kingston reviews the School of Music’s assessment procedures, and that issues regarding student capability and perceived overgenerous marking be “discussed at the appropriate levels within the university”.

Kingston should also review and, if necessary, amend its academic regulations on the independence of external examiners, the QAA says.

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