Quality U-turn wrongfoots AUT

May 29, 1998

The decision by the Quality Assurance Agency to drop its original proposals that external examiners should report to it has pacified its most vociferous critics but aroused deep concern in some other quarters.

Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said recruits were hard to find and retain because of the amount of time required for a job that paid little. External examiners suffered from a lack of credibility and respect.

"It is extremely difficult to get good people with the pressure to publish these days," he said. "But it is unclear how the revised proposals will solve the difficulties."

Colin Wilkin, professor of physics at University College London, resigned as an external examiner to another London University college when his fee was suddenly cut by two thirds. "I felt insulted and resigned, with regret," he said. "The external examiner system is our one defence at a time when quality has to be demonstrated." He was offered Pounds 4 to check an examination paper, a task that took up to two hours, and Pounds 20 for an all-day meeting.

Professor Wilkin said disquiet about this process was raised last week at faculty level and would be discussed next month at the university academic committee.

John Wakeford, professor of independent studies at Lancaster University, said most external examiners received less than half the planned national minimum wage. "It relies on patronage."

Originally the QAA had proposed a pool of registered external examiners reporting directly to it. After pressure from vice-chancellors the plan was watered down so the examiners are appointed by and report to institutions.

Consultations over the QAA's document have now closed. The AUT had agreed with the idea of a register and proposed that external examiners be trained through the new Institute for Learning and Teaching.

By requiring external examiners to report on quality in addition to standards the agency would be making best use of existing expertise and minimising the imposition on institutions, the AUT said.

Other respondents were less enthusiastic. Middlesex University said it was "quite unconvinced" by the "thinly disguised attempt to resurrect the HMI's of old".

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