'Let students see external reports'

Review aims to make examiner system less cosy and more transparent. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 7, 2011

All students should be allowed full access to external examiners' reports to boost confidence in the system, a review has concluded.

Despite fears that the move could make the reports less candid, a group looking into the future of external examining has argued that universities should be "as transparent as possible" in allowing access to the documents.

The professionalism of the academics involved and the maturity of universities should prevent examiners from feeling under pressure to "water down" their reports, the group says in a report published on 7 April. It also sets out a series of national criteria for the appointment of externals, designed to address claims that the process can be "too cosy".

In 2009, the National Union of Students called for external examiners' reports to be published, an idea that was rejected in the initial set of proposals published by Dame Janet Finch's External Examining Review Group in July last year.

Arguing that publishing all reports in full would be time-consuming and expensive, the group instead backed the sharing of reports with student representatives and proposed the development of a new section of reports that would be made available more widely.

However, this week's report by the External Examining Review Group, which follows a consultation on its initial ideas, goes further. It says externals' reports should be made "available in full to any student" who wishes to see the relevant document for his or her course.

The proposed national criteria for the appointment of externals, meanwhile, aim to avoid conflict of interest. These state that externals should not be involved in collaborative research with a member of staff or be related to a member of staff or student involved with the course.

Externals should be appointed for four years, and should not be replaced with an academic from the same department.

Reciprocal arrangements between universities are not allowed.

The Quality Assurance Agency is also developing "minimum expectations" for the role.

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said that this, combined with freely available reports, would be "a step in the right direction".

Peter Williams, former head of the QAA, described the group's recommendations as "good, if modest". The report, Review of External Examining Arrangements in Universities and Colleges in the UK, was "sensibly realistic about the limited weight that the system should be expected to bear, but it falls a long way short of the demands of the hardliners who want external examiners to be the equivalent of Ofsted inspectors", he said.

While the report calls on universities to recognise the importance of the role in promotions processes, the University and College Union said that this did not go far enough.

"Without a decent national rate of pay, many of our brightest academics will be put off from becoming external examiners, which would be bad for students and higher education," said Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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