Reform for externals excludes register

No evidence of 'shortcomings', but review proposes measures to boost clarity. Rebecca Attwood writes

August 5, 2010

Calls for a national register of external examiners and for full and open publication of external examiners' reports have been rejected by a review group.

But there should be national criteria for the appointment of external examiners and examiners should produce a section of their reports for students, it is proposed.

The External Examining Review Group, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele University, was set up last autumn in response to allegations from external examiners that universities were not acting on their concerns.

Last August, a cross-party group of MPs claimed external examiners' reports were "insufficiently rigorous" and argued that a national pool of external examiners with "wide discretion" to amend marks was needed, while the National Union of Students called for external examiners' reports to be published openly.

But, in a new consultation document, Dame Janet's group says a national register would be needed only "if there was clear evidence of widespread failure or serious system-wide shortcomings", and that the group "has found no substantial evidence of such failings".

While externals sample student work and can recommend that the output of a cohort be re-marked, they do not generally get involved in the examining and assessment of individual students, says the consultation document, drawn up by Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency.

It says that "there is considerable evidence of external examining being operated in a robust and effective way across the sector", with strengths including the "professional dedication and expertise" of externals, the "respect and seriousness" with which institutions consider comments, and the "rigour" with which universities operate the arrangements.

But the document acknowledges that external examining often seems "mystifying" to outsiders, and can appear "too cosy".

This has led to the misunderstanding that external examiners bear the full weight of assuring academic standards, when their work is only one part of the process.

The document sets out plans for a set of national "minimum expectations" for the role.

This would include the examiner making a judgement on the comparability of standards across the modules in a course, across courses in the same subject in the institution and in the same subject in other institutions "of which the external examiner has experience".

There should also be more transparency in the process of appointing external examiners. Universities should publish information about their external examiners, their job titles and institutions, it recommends.

All universities should provide induction and training, possibly drawing on a common "core" training programme.

The issue of pay is not mentioned, but the group says the importance of the role should be recognised in promotion procedures.

Externals' full reports should be shared with student representatives and a national template developed, including a section of the report that would be publicly available to all students in the institution.

It also demands clearly publicised processes for raising concerns via the QAA's Causes for Concern procedure.

The consultation deadline is 1 October.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments