Marks for the nude artists and beer glass hurler?

July 20, 2001

Is the external examiner a paid patsy or a fair arbiter? Jonathan Brill reflects on the job he has done for 25 years.


I am at the end of 25 years as an external examiner variously in pop music, scriptwriting for film and television, performing arts and drama and theatre. Was I the final arbiter, sorting out the gaps between talents and expectations, or was I a paid patsy of the university, sanitising declining standards?

My qualifications for the jobs, initially suspect, grew over the years. I do not know as much about the subjects as almost all lecturers and many students: the range in even one performing arts degree - where students may study drama, music, art, film and dance - is too broad. An external examiner has to become competent at understanding the assessment process and monitoring whether what students are trying to achieve is assessed properly by the staff and whether the process is fair.

How is it done? In one degree, an art installation is constructed in a cave in Nottingham Castle: the assessment group visits only to watch naked students wrap themselves in cling film. In another degree, a blistering rock band plays while the tutors mark only the drummer and the third guitarist on the left. And all the time, the markers are saying "that's a 57", or "it looks like B +?+ to me".

To make sense of it all, we have had to learn each institution's rules and find out what it expects of students and how it intends to measure that. For me, the external examiner is the students' friend, though not an uncritical one. He or she is trying to understand what is going on and whether it is fair. This may seem a bit mimsy, but the external is not a subject expert and, to maintain standards, sides with students.

The sector has grown beyond recognition in 25 years, and people often question whether standards have improved or declined. In the days of the Council for National Academic Awards, the various arts boards met and agreed templates to approve degree proposals. The templates have eroded with time, but faint traces can still be seen. For instance, it was said then that for honours degree-level work, students must have an "authentic experience" of the arts.

As the performing arts no longer have to fight for legitimacy, resources have often improved as technology has become cheaper and performing spaces have been built or upgraded. At its best, the performing arts sector is vibrant. At its worst, it produces a heap of self-indulgency and complacency.

With the growth in demand has come really good students and talented staff, often with one foot in the profession. Some terrific work-related materials are around: final-year projects developing a business plan and marketing material for a rock band that has produced excellent results; final-year scripts that have led to commercial films.

Sometimes degree offerings are just too canny for comfort. A few years ago I was called to adjudicate in the case of the intertwined willies. A depiction of homosexual, nautical lovers had produced institutional apoplexy and related hysteria, wholly in keeping with that role of the arts to raise doubts and challenge orthodoxy.

But then there is work that is slight and derivative. Self-expression is still thought of as an end in itself, and institutions try too often to do things on the cheap, denying students the principle of the "authentic experience". Snobbish hierarchies abound - Beethoven is better than Bizet, who is superior to bebop, which takes precedence over Chuck Berry, who was better than the Beatles, and so on - all going unchallenged.

In trying to sort a way through, the simple "externality" can bring a sense of proportion to assessment proceedings. At one place in one year, everything I saw was performed nude - a double bill of Baal and Woyzek, cabaret and improvisational dance. The next year there was scarcely a toenail in sight. The staff had scarcely charted the transition or the social attitudes that pre-empted it.

Simply being the "external" can bring a final edge to students' performances and raise them to new heights. I recently saw a final-year performance of solo cello before the external that brought tears to the eyes and gained a first. In contrast, I also watched a video of a band do its "Hello Ealing" rock salute, desperately trying to recreate Wembley Stadium to a room of three tutors, Why?

On one course, it was a requirement that every final-year student receive a viva. This became a hugely cathartic experience for examiner and student, and "the day of the vivas" was a keenly anticipated finale to three years of study.

Institutions see external examiners at best as a necessary evil, at worst as something they would rather do without - "washing our dirty linen before an external does nothing for brand recognition".

What have been the best bits so far? Was it when I attended a nihilistic cabaret and had a half-pint glass hurled at me by a sultry performer as part of her act? Or when I caught it deftly, at a stroke putting paid to cheap comments about rubbish Scottish goalkeepers? Or when we turned up at an open prison to view a performance, arriving in a car with the number plates M 649 FTA? - "What does that stand for, matey," the guard said. "Fuck the Arts?" Yeah, that had us rolling in our seats.

Jonathan Brill is director of Sheridan Associates and former chairman of the London Arts Board, Rose Bruford College and of the Philharmonic Orchestra at Hertfordshire University.

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