External examiners are “the guardians of the public purse and of the reputation of UK higher education”, according to the 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education.
And in 2004, in a report titled Enquiry into the Nature of External Examining, Andrew Hannan, at that time professor of education and research coordinator for educational development, and Harold Silver, former visiting professor of higher education, both at the University of Plymouth, reported that academics “assume that external examining should and will continue. Their reasons for willingness to become external examiners include: reciprocity across higher education; curiosity about or interest in other courses and institutions; importance for one’s CV and academic reputation.”
This has certainly been my experience as an external examiner in places as diverse as the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the city of Liverpool. I believe that I learn as much as I give. The external examiner takes on the role of a “critical friend” – listening carefully and commenting without fear or favour. The work can also be hugely memorable – at one exam board in Stornoway, an invigilator reported “no problems in the exam...apart from the noise of seagulls”.
So far, so anodyne. However, according to Hannan and Silver, the main downside “related to time and timing. The amount of time expended in the activity and the fact that examining and examination boards in the host and home institution coincided.”
In 2005, Howard Colley, a senior adviser at the Higher Education Academy, noted in The Future for External Examining and the Higher Education Academy that payments to external examiners had “remained unchanged for years” and that “external examiners argue passionately that the fees do not reflect their status as ‘guardians of UK higher education’?”.
This remains a concern. The Review of External Examining Arrangements in Universities and Colleges in the UK, a cross-sector analysis published by Universities UK last week, also fails to address remuneration; the closest it gets is that universities “should recognise the importance of the external examiner role in promotion procedures”. There is no mention of agreed national pay rates, subsistence or the repayment of expenses for externals.
This is in marked contrast to the National Union of Students’ and the University and College Union’s support for higher pay for externals. A 2009 NUS report, External Examiners: Their Role in UK Higher Education, acknowledged that different institutions pay contrasting rates, with “£375 a day cited at one university and £200 a day at another”.
One external examiner reported an annual flat fee of £400, plus expenses (travel only), for which he had to make three visits to the institution and write his report. He estimated that he had put in more than 70 hours in the past year.
What none of the reports have picked up is the lack of respect accorded to some external examiners in terms of financial burdens, high workloads and (sometimes) measly rewards. I know of one university that expected its external examiner to undertake long-haul flights and finance them upfront. All the expenses had to be agreed in advance.
Another external examiner told me that it took him six months to recoup the fee and expenses for attending a validation event. A third was forced to put the cost of accommodation and travel on a personal credit card, and had to wait nine weeks to be reimbursed.
These cases demonstrate a big gap between the rhetoric (“guardians of higher education”) and some examples of practice. If we are asked by an institution to perform a service as important as external examining, then surely it is they who should corporately shoulder the burden and not us as individual providers?
In the words of another external, “we are not supposed to be banks offering free loans to public sector organisations...all too often this isn’t even a matter of policy, but rather done for the administrative convenience of certain finance officers”. It is not right, it is not fair and it should not happen.