The review of quality assessment arrangements announced by HEFCE has led to a re-opening of the debate about the function and purpose of external examining in the UK. The review of external examining by the HEA, commissioned by HEFCE, is just the latest in a series spanning the past 30 years and the threat it poses to the principles underpinning external examining needs to be challenged.
One of the objectives of the review is:
“To consider whether in this changing HE environment – looking to 2025 – what, if any, further changes might be required to the external examining system if significantly more reliance were placed on it in revised future quality assessment arrangements”.
External examining is a bespoke system of peer review involving suitably qualified subject experts (usually recruited from other universities) who verify the standards of academic awards, offer a view on how standards compare with the sector and provide feedback and suggestions to programme teams.
They play a crucial role in providing independent, objective assurance for students about the quality of their degree programmes and help programme teams to reflect upon and develop the curriculum (the ‘critical friend’ role).
Calls to increase the level of regulation in the sector in response to demands from consumer groups, to provide students with ‘value-for-money’ and to rein-in alternative providers have upped the rhetoric.
The sector has a duty to respond by restating the strengths of the system with confidence about its role and purpose. The most recent review chaired by Dame Janet Finch was published as recently as 2011 and whilst an objective to ‘assess how recommendations from previous reviews have been implemented’ is reasonable in the broader context of a quality assessment review, the introduction to the 2011 report mentions the similar external drivers (relating to student expectations and a diverse higher education sector) as exist now and it would be likely to cover the same ground.
There is a substantial body of research into the UK’s external examining system. One of its criticisms is to do with the perennial question of comparing the standard of degree programmes. It is unlikely that many examiners, particularly those new to the role, can draw upon sufficient breadth of experience to fulfil a comprehensive benchmarking role. There is an acceptance within the sector that only broad comparisons at a threshold, i.e. pass level can be reasonably expected and anything at national/international level is unrealistic. The HEA’s own A handbook for external examining states “The idea that a single external examiner could make a comparative judgement on the national, and indeed international, standard of a programme has always been flawed. Current trends are to identify and use threshold standards”. This does not undermine the premise of the system, any peer review method relies upon the personal experience and judgement of the subject expert.
Where progress could be made is in raising the profile and improving recognition of the role. External examining opportunities are usually found via professional networks and could be more widely publicised. Although the Finch review recommended taking account of external examining in promotion criteria, this has not taken hold. In fact, universities do not typically find out about the external examining activities of their staff. The threat to the effectiveness of external examining is in it being under-resourced, unrecognised and without the necessary infrastructure to support the professional development of staff into the role.