Plans to give external examiners a stronger role in monitoring higher education standards will be reviewed after attracting more opposition than support from universities.
Results of the consultation on the future of quality assessment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reveal that 40 per cent of higher education institutions that responded said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with proposals to introduce UK-wide training for examiners and to create a national register. Only 32 per cent were in favour.
In contrast, the proposals attracted 90 per cent support from student organisations, and were backed by 83 per cent of professional bodies.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which conducted the consultation, said that many of the concerns raised were practical, rather than matters of principle. Key issues included the need to protect institutional autonomy, and the potential extra burden on providers.
But mission groups have previously warned that a UK-wide system of external examining “could begin to appear as very similar in make-up to a national inspectorate” and could “drive away the very academics best positioned to help universities improve”.
This was not the only area of significant opposition to emerge in the consultation, with 35 per cent of higher education institutions disagreeing with proposals that would require governing bodies to vouch for academic standards at their institutions. Forty-two per cent were in favour.
Concerns focused on the need to maintain the separation of responsibilities between boards and senates, which oversee academic standards, and governing bodies; and the capabilities of governors, many of whom are recruited for their expertise in areas outside higher education.
Susan Lapworth, Hefce’s registrar, said that the results revealed broad support for the funding council’s proposals, which envisage the abolition of institutional reviews for established providers. The ending of repeated testing of established providers against baseline academic standards was supported by 63 per cent of respondents, and Hefce’s overall principles on the proposals were supported by 79 per cent of all respondents, and were opposed by only 8 per cent.
But Ms Lapworth acknowledged that the proposals on external examining and governing bodies should be revisited, particularly in light of the strong student support for the changes to external examining.
“Our overriding impression on both of these areas is that there is scope for more discussions with key stakeholders to talk about their views and their concerns, and to work out how we sensibly move forward,” she said.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ mission group, which represents newer universities, said that Hefce had manoeuvred itself into a “cul-de-sac” that it needed to “reverse out of”.
“Hefce appears to have got itself into a double bind, but it would be unwise to ignore the views of universities,” Ms Tatlow said. “Governing bodies are accountable for their institutions but this is not the same as making judgements about academic quality.
“Administrative and bureaucratic burdens will increase with the teaching excellence framework and the case made by Hefce for major reform of the external examiners’ system looks even less attractive.”