Stand by external advice or peer review will fade

July 2, 1999

Unless the role of the external examiners is established on a consistent basis, they will be frustrated in efforts to ensure uniform standards, argues Gordon Pearson

Another season of exam boards draws to a close, and all that remains of the academic year is the colourful ceremonial with the great and good trying to find new words to adorn the procession of the class of '99 to the "real world". But exam boards can be quite exciting. Among the routine agreement of individual assessments, extenuating circumstances and degree classifications, particular issues can arise that spark some hard debate and even heat in which the advice of external examiners is sought and generally granted precedence.

To a non-academic, the process is mysterious. Why should peers from other universities agree to devote so much time and energy to the business of external examining? It is certainly not the money, and it has limited value for the curriculum vitae. Our selfish genes would suggest we could spend our time in many more fruitful ways.

However, the university sector relies on peer review to ensure that standards are maintained consistently across all institutions. Almost without exception, external examiners try to uphold the integrity of the courses with which they are associated to the very best of their ability.

The information revolution not only provides new and exciting ways of improving teaching and learning, but also new and exciting ways for students to cheat. Plagiarism poses a fundamental threat to non-traditional modes of student assessment. Such cheating goes far beyond unattributed quotations. It is extremely simple to obtain relevant assignments and dissertations on floppy disk, or even over the internet, which with editing would be acceptable for assessment towards the completion of a degree.

If the degree certificate is all that the student seeks from his or her university education, doing other than cheating would seem slightly eccentric, unless there was a chance of being caught and the punishment for such was decisive. If such cheating were not vigorously rejected, it could well threaten the integrity of the degree and its awarding institution.

The MBA degree is widely seen to be something of a passport to promotion and riches, and consequently it might be expected to attract among its many top-calibre students some whose main concerns are with the attainment of the degree certificate and who have limited interest in the educational processes involved. The MBA, of all degrees, needs energetic protection from such potential abusers.

The case of the Staffordshire University external examiners' advice being set aside is particularly surprising (page 6). Advice was offered in defence of the university's masters-level management degrees to defend the degree and the university against plagiarism. And it was made explicitly in defence of non-traditional modes of assessment that are of particular significance in such vocational degrees.

The initial setting-aside of the externals' advice was surprising, but even more surprising was the university's confirmation of that setting-aside after several weeks of what it described as "thorough" discussion.

I had always imagined that on any matter of substance the external examiners' decision would be accepted by any examining board and could be reversed only by appealing to some higher university body. In the nature of things, such appeals would be rare and only likely when the normal working relationship breaks down.

My experience as an external has invariably been one of cooperation, sometimes following warm discussion but always culminating in joint decision. The position of external examiners is untenable, even pointless, if their considered advice is simply disregarded.

Is the Staffordshire University instance a single rare example or the tip of an iceberg? Unless the roles and responsibilities of external examiners are established and understood on a consistent basis they will be frustrated in their role of ensuring consistency of standards. It is not to the discredit of any particular university that they interpret the external examiner role differently, but it might suggest that a short and simple code of practice might be endorsed by all higher education institutions.

It might seem that the role of external examiners has only a limited future. Just as weak defence against plagiarism may force universities to move to 100 per cent student assessment by examination, so setting aside external advice seems destined to undermine the position of externals.

But it will be a sad day if such responsibilities - so long exercised with dedication by our own peers - are to be taken over and policed by the Quality Assurance Agency. Gordon Pearson is head of the department of management at

the University of Keele.

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