At the nuts and bolts level of running courses, the external examiner holds an exalted position.
It is they who determine whether a course can be said to reach equivalent standards to similar courses elsewhere in the sector. Alongside the other two pillars – professional bodies and the QAA subject benchmarks – external examiners hold responsibility for the consistent standard of courses in UK higher education (and for others internationally based on the UK model).
You’ll look in vain in the current Office for Students regulatory framework for any mention of the practice (it was in B3 guidance when the original framework was published, but is not mentioned in the most recent iteration of B3, or in the updated condition B5 – which actually covers sector standards, or in the rather presumptive list of sector recognised standards).
So the Standing Committee for Quality Assurance (UKSCQA) – a UK sector representative body – has published, along with Universities UK, Guild HE, and the Quality Assurance Agency (the QAA, who developed the principles in consultation with the sector and other interested stakeholders) has published a set of twelve principles for external examining. This is the first salvo in the development of detailed advice and support, which ties in to the actual sector recognised standards (the UK Quality Code) in use in most of the UK.
The remarkable thing is that this needed to be done at all. External examining is one of the most fundamental (if perhaps least understood by non-specialists) elements of UK higher education. There should, really, be detailed regulatory support (and indeed requirements) for the practice – there should be (as Dearing called for) a national college of external examiners with the support of professional bodies where relevant. There should be mandatory training courses.
QAA says that:
Further advice to support institutions and externals in implementing these principles and reviewing their own external examining policies and practices is under development and will be made available in autumn 2022.
For the moment we have a very simple and straightforward list of principles, covering both the conduct of the external examiner and the institution at which they are examining. Most providers should be doing this stuff already, but we do now have it in writing at least.