Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water: External Examining and Right to Work checks

The rhetoric before and during the election campaign regarding immigration has seen political parties maintain a tough stance[1]. Aside from the obvious repercussions for higher education such as recruitment of international students, one area that has been affected by the tightening of regulations and may be increasingly in the future is external examining.

Universities in the UK are required by immigration law to check their employees’ eligibility to work. The impact this is having on external examiners is not fully appreciated and the requirements are slowly being reflected in the majority of institutions’ processes.

The employer’s guide to right to work checks includes the following requirement: “You must do this (the right to work check) in the presence of the holder of the document and before you employ them to ensure they are legally allowed to do the work in question for you”. This is problematic as the reality for external examiners is that their first visit may not be until the exam board at the end of the academic year, with other elements of the role, such as reviewing draft assessment papers and sampling coursework, carried out remotely.

A report from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) in May 2014 outlines the findings of a survey, which received responses from 24 institutions. A separate survey of the Academic Registrars’ Council Quality Practitioners Group about how right to work checks are carried out received 12 anonymised responses.

Main findings

  • The majority of institutions classify external examiners as employees. Some use ‘casual worker’ or ‘self-employed’ statuses;
  • Less than 2% of external examiners required a certificate of sponsorship or permitted paid engagement visitor visa;
  • (Only) 63% of institutions responding to the UCEA survey (in January/February 2014) carried out pre-employment checks. Where these could not be carried out before the commencement of the contract, the examiner sends a photocopy of their documentation, presenting the original at a later date;
  • Some difficulties with pre-employment checks are noted:
    • Resistance from examiners due to concerns about privacy and data protection;
    • Lack of consistency across the sector as to the levels of scrutiny required;
    • Geographical distance;
    • Administrative burden – time consuming, costly and disproportionate.

“The checking process is time consuming and out of all proportion to the risk since the vast majority of external examiners are already employed as academic members of staff at other UK institutions and will therefore already have undergone this check.” (UCEA, 7)

Other similar roles, e.g. acting as an external adviser/specialist for validation or review events, and examining a PhD thesis, present added complications as these are one-off activities, sometimes conducted remotely.  There is an acknowledgement in the UCEA report that external advisers for programme validation are not typically checked: “Getting stuck… with external advisers who don’t come to the University at all… – still mulling that one over!”

Compliance and risk

The clear and present risk is an audit visit from UK Visas and Immigration (formerly part of the UK Border Agency). The focus of audit visits has been on student visa compliance (potential loss of sponsor status) and bogus colleges (closures) and therefore the risk in this area could be deemed to be low.

There are risks attached to fulfilling the UKVI rules in that academics may increasingly be put-off the role due to the burden of administrative checks.

“The issue is that this highly niche group carry out a very small amount of secondary employment for very little (roughly £150-200 per piece of work) and they do not wish to provide ID and therefore this puts us at risk so we cannot employ them.” (UCEA, 7)

Of the potential resolutions listed on page 8 of the UCEA report the most promising is to “allow the employer of the external examiner to verify the right-to-work with the individual’s substantive employer”. The vast majority of external examiners are academics employed at UK institutions who will have already undergone a verification check. Although this approach would not meet the current stipulation that the check is carried out by the employer, it is a straightforward solution that would avoid the need for extra visits at the start of the contract period.

Note about the review of external examining

It remains to be seen what the current review of external examining, conducted by the HEA, will recommend for the external examining system. One possible outcome relevant to this post is a national register or organisation responsible for appointing external examiners. This was discounted by the Finch Review in 2011, however as the HEA’s review will see “if any further reforms/supplementary models might be required to guarantee standards in the future, if substantially more reliance were to be placed on the system in changed quality assurance arrangements” this possibility cannot be discounted.

What it could lead to is a transfer of the responsibility for right to work checks from universities to the national organisation (as the employer), removing this area of risk from universities and increasing, in my view, the potential to lobby for an exemption to the UKVI rules.


Home Office (2014) An employer’s guide to right to work checks [online]. Available at: 390363/an_employers_guide_to_right_to_work_checks_december_2014_v4.pdf [Accessed 24 April 2015]

Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) (2014) Survey report: External examiner employment status and right to work [online]. Available via: [Accessed 24 April 2015]

[1] Conservatives: “Cracking down on abuse of the immigration system by closing bogus colleges and making it much tougher for illegal immigrants to remain in the UK by restricting access to work, housing, benefits, healthcare, bank accounts and driving licences” Link

Labour: “Britain needs immigration rules that are tough and fair.” Link

Liberal Democrats: “By bringing back proper border checks – so we know who’s coming in and leaving the UK – we will identify and deport people who over-stay their visa” Link


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