HEFCE’s consultation document, Future approaches to quality assessment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, published on Monday 29th June 2015 sets out proposed new arrangements that will affect a wide range of areas including quality assurance and governance. Other blog sites and sector bodies have commented on the broad proposals so I thought I would focus on a specific area that I’ve written about previously, namely external examining.
It is worth reiterating the stated aim of HEFCE’s review in this area, i.e. “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”.
Therefore, the external examining system was considered alongside other mechanisms, such as institutional review, regarding its role in the maintenance and comparability of academic standards and the externality it provides. It is identified as a key element in the current arrangements that the proposals are seeking to strengthen.
The main aspects of the proposed arrangements in relation to external examining are as follows:
- A requirement to attend UK-wide training, separate from, and in addition to, institutions’ own training and induction programmes.
This is subject to further consideration by sector bodies such UUK and GuildHE and it would be worth referring to the existing course offered by SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association), which is aimed at newly appointed external examiners or those seeking professional recognition for the role. It has a stated outcome that award recipients will be able to: ‘Verify that assessment practices are rigorous, fair and maintain academic standards in relation to the specified award’ and this is similar to the focus of the training suggested by HEFCE on technical assessment skills.
There are questions to resolve regarding the proposal which will determine how onerous it is, such as the frequency of training, i.e. is this an annual requirement, bearing in mind the standard four-year appointment term and the intention to address comparability of standards over time? What are the sanctions for non-attendance if an examiner was already part-way though an appointment term? Who will bear the additional costs?
- A national register of external examiners
Earlier reviews of external examining have considered the establishment of a national body appointing and allocating external examiners to institutions. You can imagine a process in which an examiner is allocated to a succession of different institution types in terms of reputation, mission group or longevity. Thankfully the HEFCE proposals also declined to go down this route, I think in part because it may be unattractive to external examiners who wished to retain control over where they are appointed, but also so that institutions retain contractual responsibility for appointments and the associated right to work checks and other administrative burden.
- Share and develop views
Although there is less detail on this it is an interesting area in the consultation, concerning ‘communities of practice’ (however they may be comprised) coming together to consider standards, particularly at the borderlines. There are obviously some practical aspects to this to consider, principally how to identify and arrange for a suitable representation to partake in this exercise. This ‘calibration’ of standards would then inform the training provided to external examiners.
Reward and recognition
When the review was first announced I wrote a post setting out the strengths of the current external examining system. I also made the following suggestion and sounded a cautionary note:
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.
The latest consultation does not propose a solution to the issue of recognition, however it does at least recognise the issue and suggest that it will be explored further. The stumbling block is likely to be institutional autonomy, although the creation of a national register will at least raise the profile of the role.
My cautionary note regarding an under-resourced, unrecognised and unsupported system has in part been addressed or otherwise flagged for further consideration in HEFCE’s proposals.
The national training scheme will support the professional development of staff into the role – and although its primary aim to maintain academic standards is flawed (previous blog post) it is at least a measured response to this issue. The reward and recognition aspect has been put back on the table for consideration and will be helped in the first instance by a national register. The resourcing question hasn’t been covered in the report: this will have to wait for the design stage of the proposals.