Is the UK’s external examining system past its sell-by date?

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In the UK’s quality assurance system, there’s one feature – the external examining system – which is assumed to be an immutable object.

But does assuming that ‘well, we’ve always done it, so it must be right’ blind us to other options? Rather than tweak the system, as has regularly been proposed over the years, we ought to be more radical. Do we need an external examining system at all?

First, a little history…

The external examining system was set up in the 1830s to enable Durham to assure potential students (and others) that their degrees were comparable to those of Oxford or Cambridge. By the 1950s, the system was adopted by the National Council for Technological Awards (NCTA) and then from the 1960s onwards, by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). Today, the Quality Assurance Agency still expects, through the Quality Code, that external examiners will provide informative comment on whether academic standards are comparable with those in other UK degree-awarding bodies of which the examiners have experience.

Twenty years ago, Ronald Barnett noted that “… we have to doubt that the external examining system ever fulfilled the responsibilities placed on it. It appears likely that the idea was always a fiction; we just did not recognise it as such.” Barnett’s perspective was based on a system inadequate for supporting the demands of a mass higher education system. He noted at the time that there were around 100 universities and around one million students. Two decades on, the sector has around 1.8 million undergraduate students studying at over 500 institutions.

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

Barnett was not alone in doubting that the system was able to assure the comparability of standards of student achievement.  The 1985 Lindop Report noted that there was confusion around the role of the external examiner. In 1989, the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) hoped that training would address such confusion. In 1994, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) joined the debate, suggesting that comprehensive training was all that was required. A year later, HEQC commissioned a report called The External Examiner System: Possible Futures. Proposals included a national register and a national policy for training.

Clearly, the difficulties had not been resolved by 1997, when Dearing entered the fray with recommendations for a register of external examiners, managed by QAA. In 2009 the Commons Select Committee for Higher Education got involved, also recommending the creation of a register of external examiners along with new training for examiners.

Most recently, the Higher Education Academy (2015) also questioned whether the external examining system was effective in safeguarding standards. The report also noted that examiners may lack experience of different providers across the sector. With around 150 higher education institutions, 270 colleges of further education offering higher education, and an increasing number of ‘alternative’ providers, it’s easy to see that this is probably the case. The report concludes with recommendations designed to strengthen a system aimed at assuring comparability of standards at discipline level. It did not propose a more comprehensive review and a potential re-casting of purpose of the system.

The repetitive nature of these reports and reviews begs the question: why does the sector insist on tinkering with the system rather than going for first principles?

What Difference Does It Make?

Might there be reasons for retaining the external examining system? If the system does not offer maintenance and comparability of standards, then what does it offer? Its value is in its ability to identify matters for improvement and best practice that might improve the quality of the student learning experience. However, given the extraordinary cost of the system to the sector, it is questionable whether there is enough value in return for the extortionate amount of time and effort external examining can take.

There are three fundamental flaws with the current system. First, the size and diversity of the sector is such that we are not able to even consider assuring comparability of standards of student achievement. Second, were this even possible, examiners are not in a position to assure comparability of the academic regulations used to measure student achievement, such as how algorithms for degree classification might work. Third, examiners do not have guidance in the form of nationally-agreed descriptors for a First, a 2:1 etc. in order to establish whether standards are in any way comparable across the sector.

The UK is nearly unique (Malta, Denmark and Norway preventing it from being completely so) in having a system of external examining at undergraduate level. We could focus on second and/or double marking and internal moderation to assure standards within institutions. Universities and colleges have systems for the management of quality and the assurance of standards. To claim that external examiners add materially to these processes is a fiction. Let’s use them for what they’re good for – enhancing the student experience – but let’s not kid ourselves, or our students, that they’re doing more than that.

12 thoughts on “Is the UK’s external examining system past its sell-by date?”

  1. Grace Mulcahy says:

    Not so unique – Ireland’s external examining system can be added to the list above.

    1. Katie says:

      Thank you, Grace – I’m mortified, I have no excuse as I used to be a reviewer for HETAC!

  2. David Cairns says:

    I would advise care, Katie. Take away external examining, with all its flaws, and the case for statutory regulation of academic standards will come to the fore (again).

    1. Katie says:

      Hello David – thank you for reading and commenting. I think your observation on the potential for statutory regulation of standards is (partly) what worries me – first, we have HEFCE and its proposals on training examiners, on calibration activities and on developing ‘sensible algorithms’ for degree classification; then, second, we have a White Paper proposing that standards will be the remit of OfStud. With the first, it feels that the system is being regulated for us and there seems to be a danger of losing any value; with the second, where does that leave the system, if we are no longer responsible for standards? So, is it time to review/revise rather than fortify/fix? All good wishes, Katie

  3. Colin Raban says:

    I’m sorry, Katie, but I would want to question a number of your assertions, and caution against any premature dismissal of the external examining system. First, even if external examiners are ‘good for enhancing the student experience’ (an assertion that is itself contestable), that is not their primary responsibility and some would argue that they do not usually have access to the evidence that would enable them to perform that role. Second, the system may perform its primary function imperfectly – the assurance of standards – but it’s certainly better than nothing (or, as David Cairns suggests, some government imposed standards framework). And, thirdly, I wonder whether you are overstating the costs of the system: these are not, in my experience, ‘extraordinary’ (how does it compare with the salary costs of universities’ senior executives!?) and, in the order of things, the ‘time and effort’ required to perform the role is not ‘extortionate’.

    1. Katie Akerman says:

      Thanks, Colin – I’m not sure I am dismissing the system; but, rather suggesting that as it’s not too good at the comparability of standards thing that we look to make a different/better use of it? I guess what I am railing against is the set of proposals on training, calibration activities and ‘sensible algorithms’ for award classification – if we need all this stuff to make the system work, shouldn’t we just stop and re-think it?

      1. Thom says:

        I think it could be improved, but I fear that without something like it we’d get US style grade inflation:

        http://www.gradeinflation.com

  4. Petra Leimich says:

    Hi Katie, I agree that the external examining system has flaws. However, your post seem to completely miss the exchange of ideas that this system provides an excellent platform for, and which I value highly. As External Examiner I see different approaches e.g. to examining topics I teach, which allows me also to evaluate, and, if appropriate, change my own approach and feed these ideas back to my subject group. This stems not only from the institutions I am EE for, but from my conversations with other EEs who are visiting at the same time. Conversely, as lecturer / senior lecturer, engaging with our external examiners also provides said forum and brings in fresh ideas. Plus changing external every few years contributes to avoiding things becoming stale – it is far too easy for internal moderation to become a perfunctory signature on a form, with no real scrutiny.
    The only other context in which academics in the same subject from different institutions may meet is research conferences, where the focus is not on teaching.

    1. Katie says:

      Thank you, Petra – I agree, and it’d be great to develop that facet of the system, particularly in light of HEFCE’s implementation of its revised approach for quality assessment, where we’re losing an element of peer review.

  5. The Higher Education Academy has been awarded the contract by HEFCE (on behalf of the devolved administrations) to lead a project on degree standards, running from 2016 to 2021. It has begun work on this.

    Your commentary suggests that the project is about regulating standards; in fact it is about developing external examiners’ scholarship and skills regarding assessment and the calibration of their academic standards within their subject communities. It aims to consider further strengthening the external examining system in a way that recognises the autonomy of higher education providers and to develop a sector-owned process of external examining. The project has two linked parts:
    • working with a range of higher education providers to design and pilot generic professional development for external examiners
    • exploring different forms of calibration exercises with subject associations and Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs).
    Geoff Stoakes
    The Higher Education Academy’

  6. In at least one Australian university (Griffith) quality of assessment was assured via the introduction of systematic and enterprise-wide consensus-based approach to assessment moderation. This process of establishing consensus at a discipline level might then be utilised across institutions at a national level.

  7. teraknor says:

    to dismiss the external examining system is to dismiss the carefully selected community of critical friends that have evolved over many years. If an external examiner lacks experience, that is more the fault of the HEI when selecting candidates.

    Having been an external for multiple HEI’s and HEI/FE partnerships over the years. There have been occasions where I have had to intervene to help the teaching team overcome issues that have resulted from corporate decision making (or more often indecision).

    An external with the chutzpah to stand their ground is an asset. Equally, having been on the ‘positive’ receiving end of a few, when used wisely they have helped our teaching team improve their own work.

    Maybe the system is in need of review – more to find the trusted sensible souls and encourage them to help raise standards and be rewarded for their efforts.

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