Student reps should be more like external examiners

External examiners are still regarded as an essential component of higher education quality - so why don't we treat their student equivalents in the same way? George Bryant-Aird sets out what that would look like

George Bryant-Aird is Faculty Regulation and Governance Officer at Edge Hill University

External examiners and course (or student) representatives share many things, but perhaps the most surprising is the sector’s repeated calls to bin them off.

Whether it’s external examining’s absence from OfS’ first attempts at cementing its conditions of regulation, or the repeated sector reviews of external examiner arrangements, or even my past-self debating what next for course reps on the site, both have taken their fair share of sector flak.

But after a bit of soul-searching (and a new role) what I’ve become interested in is not so much the wider discussion of whether peer-to-peer and/or external feedback is valuable for the sector (it is), but the mechanism with which it is delivered – and whether we can learn and apply what we do with external examiners to help support the integration of meaningful student voice to QA processes.

Nuts and bolts

The minutiae of how external examiners operate across institutions may differ, but the fundamentals tend to remain the same:

  • Externals quality assure/assess samples of work and attend exam / assessment boards;
  • Externals’ comments are sought on a variety of quality and curriculum; planning activities, including validations, module approvals, and a host of modifications;
  • Externals write a report and receive a written response from course leaders, detailing how their queries and concerns have been addressed at programme level.

Of course, behind these activities exist a raft of institutional resource, guidance, funding, tracking and staff expertise, which is where things start to get interesting.

Quality not quantity

Students’ Union X recruits 500 course reps for its university. It shouts about the number. The university nods and applauds.

Three months pass, and after maybe some nominal surveying and attempts at in-person / online training, engagement tails off and all parties (SU staff, university staff, and the course reps themselves) are at best slightly confused and at worst entirely disenfranchised by Christmas.

That’s not universally true, of course, but I’d wager anyone who’s worked with an SU will find some version of the above eerily familiar.

So, what if, like external examiners, we advocated for one, paid position aligned with each programme (broadly speaking, some programmes with multiple strands may require more).

It would make training and management easier, and would allow university quality professionals to work collaboratively with their students’ union in the recruitment, maintenance, and communication with these representatives.

The value of the role would also increase – a singular representative figure doesn’t have to completely replace the wider course representative network, but could instead act as the conduit and facilitator of their opinions at programme level.

Get it in the handbook

You might have missed it, but an important word in the above section is paid. If, like external examiners, we elevate the student representative position to a paid one, and we allocate resource in the way of training and direct staff points of contact, we’re actually giving students the opportunity to deliver real, impactful feedback.

What follows is trust – from the students that the university cares what students are saying and feedback will result in meaningful change, and trust from the university that student voice can be embedded across its QA processes.

When you say external examining to anyone working in HE who has worked adjacent to quality, the first words that’ll come to mind are likely committees, panels, and reports (or some variation thereof).

The annual EE report gives course leaders and the wider faculty senior leadership teams an insight into how their carefully designed curricula and processes are working from an outside lens, and the resulting comments tend to feed through a variety of department, faculty, and institutional governance structures.

So imagine if, in addition to external examiner’s reports that provides an expert, peer-led view on the curriculum, delivery, and quality of the course, we had a student representative report running parallel providing student concerns and queries, a student-led evaluation of programmes compared against the B Conditions and/or the Quality Code, discussion on the opportunities and obstacles present in the lived experience of the programme, and a raft of direct student quali data at programme level.

After the report has been submitted, departments and programmes would, in that student representative, have a direct contact to invite to committees to speak to the report and to ensure student voice has a seat at the table.

This “seat” could then be extended out of high-level faculty and department boards, and to things like faculty validation panels (which often require student consultation), and specific sub-committees.

When we say “student report,” imagine also opening up the flexibility (as was the case with the student TEF submission) to allow for media submissions and other forms of non-written communication.

This has twofold benefits – it is more accessible to a wider demographic of students who may be confident in creative media but intimidated by a formal written report; it will push your committees to start innovating in the variety of media they engage with and scrutinise.

And imagine how much more powerful and useful both external examiners and student representatives’ reports were if they had the capacity, time and support to talk to eachother.

Not just a pipedream

There are two primary things that would need to happen to make this possible – collaboration between the SU and university, and access to funding.

Allowing the SU to have a foot in the door when it comes to quality processes can result in better training for course representatives – training that aligns with sector conditions of regulation and the institution’s own strategic priorities – which will empower students who are interested to engage effectively through reports and committees.

Funding, both in the payment arrangements already in place for external examiners and in the investment in staff resource (again, in collaboration with SUs) will allow for the realistic implementation of this structure, providing work for students that fits around (and directly engages with) their studies and ensuring already stretched staff aren’t put under further pressure.

I’ve discussed on the site before about academic societies and the combining of student representation with recreational opportunities. To me, something similar to the above structure lends itself to that model.

Within those society committees, there could be a nominated “academic representative” position who is trained, paid for their time and produced reports.

SUs and universities who want to keep the wider pool of volunteer course representatives can do so, using the new paid academic representative as the conduit and eventual author of those students’ views through the mechanisms described above.

I am undoubtedly leaving many things out here in the way of logistics. But in a sector where student voice is often undervalued or ignored entirely, the thought is surely worth exploring.

2 responses to “Student reps should be more like external examiners

  1. I applaud the effort. I didn’t miss “paid,” and I also didn’t miss “collaboration” and “funding.” All of these are needed in the institutional (university and college) model for higher education (HE) provision. That makes all of these vulnerable to corruption by institutional employers and cuts to funding by governments. This should sound very familiar, across the history and geography of HE familiar. Here is another way to better ensure quality education, research and credentials: It requires accepting that HEIs are not identical to HE, are not necessary for HE provision, and are actually harmful to its provision. Change the model, change everything.

  2. I think this could be a great system, but there are a lot of consequences to shifting the dynamic of student reps from a representative model to a paid consultant model (which is arguably what an EE is). There are also a lot of differences between an EE, brought in to provide expertise built up over years in similar positions/courses as the ones being examined and student representatives that will likely never have studied in a different HEI and will have, at most, two or so years of experience at their own HEI before taking up the role.

    There are also issues about the employee/employer relationship to consider. Various experiences with paid student interns has meant that I’m perhaps a little wary about assuming a level of professional competence from undergraduate students who have sometimes never had a paid job before or have never had a paid job that required any level of individual agency/motivation. If I fail to perform my duties as an EE, I can be fired. If a student fails to turn in a report, do we fire them? Does the SU manage them and/or fire them? EE terms are often for a minimum of three years, how would this work for UG students? Do we prioritize course-level experience or is this a role that could actually be better suited to a Sab role that can view trends and approaches at a School/Faculty level?

    I’m all for paying course reps for their time and I think there are ways any SU could professionalise those roles (requiring evidence of student consultation, paying reps for a set number of hours outside of training and meetings so long as they can demonstrate how they’ve spent that time). I get far more nervous when we are relying on those students for our QA processes or creating single points of failure in a system that already sees massive attrition (as you point out).

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