Peer review rejig axed in crisis fear

October 24, 2003

Funding chiefs have abandoned plans to force universities to publish reports by their external examiners amid concerns that opening up the traditionally confidential peer-review system would plunge it into crisis.

In a report on the range of information universities will be required to publish under the new quality assurance regime, the Higher Education Funding Council for England will next week confirm that external examiners will be required to publicly only "sign off" the standards on each course they monitor with simple yes or no answers.

The original proposal, understood to have been driven by ministers but first mooted last year in the Cooke report, Information on Quality Standards , would have required universities to publish detailed summaries of every report on every course by every external examiner. It would have forced institutions to publish several hundred reports a year.

Critics said this would make it a costly bureaucratic nightmare. There was also concern that it would prevent examiners being candid or critical about problems, making the system all but useless. It was feared that this could tip current external examiner recruitment problems into a crisis by imposing too great a burden on low-paid externals.

Roger Brown, Southampton Institute principal and former universities quality chief, said: "This rowing back reflects the application of common sense. The external examiner system is already close to collapse and, had this been implemented, many externals would have refused to do the job."

Some believed the plans could have opened up externals to legal threats and would have destroyed the goodwill the system relies on.

Geoffrey Alderman, a regular external examiner and a former pro vice-chancellor responsible for quality assurance at Middlesex University, said the U-turn was a "very welcome development". He continued: "It was inevitable in view of the fact that the proposal as it stood would have led to a fundamental change in the role of external examiners, with serious legal implications. I myself would not have wished to act as an external under the proposal now ditched."

Confirmation that the proposals were being ditched came this week from the Quality Assurance Agency, which is responsible for monitoring and validating information published by universities.

In a newsletter, QAA director of review Stephen Jackson said Hefce had been piloting systems of publishing the range of new information required. He said: "The outcomes have led to a number of amendments to the teaching quality information requirements, including proposals for the presentation of information.

"Perhaps more important are the changes that are being made to the contentious proposals that would have required summaries of external examiners' reports to have been published. Under revised arrangements now agreed, these will be reduced to formal confirmation (or not) that three key assessment requirements have been met."

It is understood that externals will have to confirm that standards are "appropriate" for the award of a degree, are "comparable" to those of similar courses in similar institutions and that the examining processes are fair. Examiners will be able to add comments on a purely voluntary basis.

The Hefce report is published next week. Institutions will be expected to meet the requirements by December 2004.

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