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October 20, 2006

Access to unedited external examiners' reports on course quality will be provided after review finds that summaries are vague and often censored. Phil Baty reports

Full and uncensored examiners' reports on the standard of university courses will be made available to students for the first time in the wake of a government review of the information published by universities.

The Department for Education and Skills has confirmed to The Times Higher that after publication of the review of its Teaching Quality Information provision this month, it will allow local student representatives to gain full access to reports by all external examiners on the quality and standards of all courses.

The practice of routinely publishing summaries of externals' reports on the TQI website will be scrapped. This follows complaints that this information is too vague to be useful and cannot be relied on to be frank and balanced because criticism is often censored.

The TQI review was carried out by the Quality Assurance Framework Review Group, chaired by Dame Sandra Burslem.

The publication of summaries had been a key plank of government moves to improve the information available on the quality of courses ahead of this year's introduction of fees of £3,000 a year.

The TQI website includes the results of the National Student Satisfaction Survey as well as data on entry qualifications, dropout rates and employment prospects for each course in the UK.

A DfES spokesman told The Times Higher : "Improving the TQI site remains a priority, and streamlining measures will include the removal of external examiner summary reports. Full reports will be made available to local student representatives."

Details of the new system are not yet clear. But the news has been met with mixed reactions.

Wes Streeting of the National Union of Students said the NUS was "delighted" at the news. "The DfES will, in agreeing to this proposal, be ensuring that information flows where it is most needed, allowing student reps direct involvement in the development, delivery and design of courses."

Bob Cryan, deputy vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, worried that the move would "alter the nature of external examiner engagement". He said:

"Currently, we enjoy frank critical comments from examiners, which are helpful and focused. Writing a private report to the university is a different undertaking from writing a report that will be circulated among students. We feel this will lead to an element of self-censorship and less effective external examiner engagement."

The Times Higher reported last week that the Quality Assurance Agency had raised concerns about external examiners' summary reports. It said that while universities were meeting the requirement to publish simple yes/ no answers to questions on course quality, they were largely failing to provide additional comments by examiners, making it "impossible to assess their integrity or frankness."

Dame Sandra writes in a letter to The Times Higher this week: "I agree with the QAA that summaries of external examiner reports are not particularly helpful to potential students." She adds that her forthcoming report will recommend that full external examiners' reports should be shared with student representatives as part of their involvement in institutional quality assurance.


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