Pack drill for quality army

February 20, 1998

The Quality Assurance Agency is preparing to draw up performance tests for an army of licensed external examiners who will police standards in higher education.

It has recruited Gilbert Jessup, former deputy chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, as an adviser to help define a range of competences or "performance criteria" expected of QAA-approved examiners.

Institutions will be encouraged to tailor staff development programmes to give academics the kind of skills needed to meet the criteria, said John Randall, QAA chief executive.

"The criteria will define what a person needs to understand and be able to do to perform competently in the role of external examiner," he said.

Mr Jessup, best known for his key role in developing National Vocational Qualifications and General NVQs, is understood to have adopted a flexible approach.

Existing external examiners with an established academic standing are unlikely to be tested against the performance criteria as closely as numerous new examiners the QAA intends to take on.

A pool of thousands of examiners with enhanced powers, as proposed by the Dearing higher education committee, will be used by the QAA to provide an external check on new minimum "threshold" standards to be set by subject groups representing institutions, associations and professional bodies.

The QAA plans to pilot the standards in history, chemistry and law from the autumn in Scotland and Wales, with external examiners visiting institutions throughout the academic year. Issues raised by them will be taken up by subject reviewers, formerly known as assessors.

A consultation paper on the proposed new quality regime, including the role of external examiners, will be circulated early next month.

Anthony Fletcher, quality assessment convener for the History at the Universities Defence Group, said the results of a survey among historians indicated the performance criteria for students were likely to be couched in general terms.

But he admitted that there was a "tension" between this and an expectation that standards will be more clearly defined under the new system.

"No one has yet explained exactly what threshold standards are. As far as I am concerned we are talking about ways of thinking that everyone gaining a degree must have displayed. But there is a terrible danger that defining it could mean the system becomes too bureaucratic," he said.

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