Nip and tuck for externals? A radical facelift is required

Quality assurance experts disappointed that review ignores major problems. Rebecca Attwood reports

August 12, 2010

A review of external examining has so far failed to address some of the system's key problems, experts warned this week.

They said that important issues including pay, comparability of standards, legal protection and the cost of changes had been ignored or left unresolved by the plans published by the External Examining Review Group.

The group's proposals include the introduction of national criteria for appointing externals; a published section of reports designed for students; better training; and a set of "minimum expectations" for the role.

Peter Williams, the former head of the Quality Assurance Agency, said the document was "a good attempt at a makeover of the external-examiner system - which is generally recognised as being in dire need of a facelift".

He added that the plans represented at least the fourth attempt at reform in 40 years, but that "not a lot has happened previously", and "several elephants (remain) in the room".

"There is no mention of the very considerable resources needed to implement the changes, no mention of the competing demands of research on academics' time and no real attempt to get to grips with comparability," Mr Williams said.

"The term 'broad comparability' is pretty weaselly. How broad is broad?"

While the document was "much more realistic" about the limitations of the "still vitally important" role of externals, he said that without better pay, their only motivation was a sense of obligation.

"This won't be sustainable if the workload increases substantially - it's already very shaky," Mr Williams warned.

You get what you pay for

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, said external examining had always been "run on a shoestring".

"If we are serious about academic standards, we should devote more resources to it," he said.

The proposed "minimum expectations" scale back assumptions that externals can compare standards across the higher education system, and this is "realistic and sensible", Professor Brown said.

But he questioned whether the QAA's Causes for Concern procedure should be the mechanism through which externals raise concerns beyond the institutions they oversee.

"External examiners can already decline to sign off an exam board's report, but even 20 years ago none ever did," Professor Brown said. "The chances of them invoking the Causes for Concern procedure are remote. What is needed is legal protection for external examiners."

Jon Renyard, chairman of the Quality Strategy Network, which represents quality assurance staff, said he was "sure that the sector would be pleased" with the review's initial proposals.

"In particular, it is reassuring to note the recognition that external examining forms one central part of a comprehensive system of quality assurance for UK higher education, and we would wish for it to retain its current significance," he added.

But Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, found the document "disappointing".

He said that it failed to address adequately the issue of improper pressure on externals, or whether they could require individual grades to be changed.

"Above all, it fails to ask whether the external-examiner system gives value for money and whether we might not be better off without it, as in the US," he said. "Externals should either be properly empowered or the system should be scrapped."

The Universities UK, GuildHE and QAA consultation runs until 1 October.

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