Who needs external examiners? We do

UCU has asked external examiners to resign in support of the strike over pensions. But what exactly does an external examiner do? Professor GR Evans reflects on the value of an undersung role

On 15 March the University and College Union (UCU) asked external examiners to “resign” in support of the strike over proposed USS pension changes:

“UCU said external examiners resigning would cause universities a number of specific problems around the setting and marking of exams. External examiners agree the setting of questions, moderate exam results and ensure that institutions’ assessment procedures are rigorous.”

It was reported on 23 March that “more than 600 external examiners” had recorded their resignations in a public document circulating on social media’.

Are external examiners necessary?

External examiners provide a means of ensuring that there is reasonable comparability of standards among degree-awarding bodies.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) published guidance on the role of the external examiner in 2004. A version updated in 2011 is now online. This explains the way the external examiner provides a check without interfering with the academic autonomy of the degree-awarding body:

“External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining UK academic standards within autonomous higher education providers.”

It is also explained that external examiners do more than moderate examinations. They help the provider improve its examining practice:

“Based on their qualifications and experience, they are able to provide carefully considered advice on the academic standards of the awards, programmes and/or modules to which they have been assigned, and can offer advice on good practice and opportunities to enhance the quality of those programmes/modules.”

They help to ensure comparability of standards with other providers:

“They are also able to offer an informed view of how standards compare with the same or similar awards at other higher education providers (primarily in the UK, and sometimes overseas as well) of which they have experience.”

The Higher Education Academy published its own handbook for external examiners in 2012, in collaboration with the QAA.

Important work then, but not perhaps one for which there are many keen candidates. It is not surprising that attracting enough appropriately-qualified and experienced individuals can prove difficult. External examining is needed at a time in the academic year when an examiner is likely to be under marking pressure in his or her own institution. It is burdensome. It can involve some tension where an external examiner finds it necessary to press for recalibrations or revisions of marks awarded by the internal examiners. It is not likely to boost the examiner’s own career.

The Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee called in 2009 for the creation of a register of external examiners. The evidence it had heard suggested to it that:

“… the problems of the external examiner system at present can be summarised as:

  • the remit and autonomy of external examiners is often unclear and may sometimes differ substantially across institutions in terms of operational practices;
  • the reports produced by external examiners are often insufficiently rigorous and critical;
  • the external examiner’s report’s recommendations are often not acted upon—partly because their remit is unclear; and
  • the appointment of external examiners is generally not transparent.”

Why no national pool?

The Dearing Report had recommended in 1997 that the sector “create, within three years, a UK-wide pool of academic staff recognised by the QAA, from which institutions must select external examiners”. That recommendation had never been implemented and the Select Committee wanted to revive it:

“We strongly support the development of a national ‘remit’ for external examiners, clarifying, for example, what documents external examiners should be able to access, the extent to which they can amend marks – in our view, they should have wide discretion– and the matters on which they can comment. This should be underpinned with an enhanced system of training, which would allow examiners to develop the generic skills necessary for multi-disciplinary courses. We conclude that higher education institutions should only employ external examiners from the national pool.”

In the absence of a pool, individual universities continue to make their own arrangements. At Durham, for example, there are detailed rules for the selection and appointment of external examiners.

The proportion of first-class degrees awarded has been rising. Whether this is a consequence of the manipulation of the algorithms used by examiners to calculate a student’s final mark, has become contentious. The potential role of external examiners in helping to moderate such activity is obvious but has been difficult to monitor in the continuous absence of the proposed ‘pool’ arrangement.

A project on degree standards, running from 2016 to 2021 has been ‘managed’ by the Higher Education Funding Council England (Hefce) on behalf of all the UK funding councils. It is not yet clear how the Office for Students will approach the questions that continue to surround the operation of the external examiner system.