External quality control

Long before the recent culture of quality assurance arrived in higher education, most universities in these islands would have argued that a key guarantor of quality and standards was the framework of external review. This was in evidence in particular through the system of external examiners, under which all marking of examinations or other assignments would be double-checked by examiners from other institutions. Furthermore, appointments to senior positions would be made with the help of interview panels the membership of which included external assessors.

I have myself been an external examiner in several universities, and have participated in selection interviews as an external assessor. On the whole, my experience has been that this system of externality has been a reasonably effective way of protecting standards. However, it has now been reported by the UK Quality Assurance Agency that external examiners have in many cases voiced doubts about their own effectiveness, and raised questions about the extent to which universities take their views and reports into consideration.

The external examiner tradition still plays a key role in ensuring fairness and consistency in the sector. However, if doubts have arisen as to whether this role is as effective as it should be, then it is time to undertake a more systematic examination and to consider whether the system needs to be adjusted or changed. This is not being helped, it has to be said, by new rules in Ireland on the part of the tax authorities under which both fees (which are extremely modest) and the actual reimbursed expenses of external examiners now have to be treated (and taxed) as salary, which may seriously undermine the system. The time is right, therefore, for a fundamental review.

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4 Comments on “External quality control”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It is truly a simple matter to measure the bullet resistance of glass. The quality assurance depends on a very simply test. This is much like the reading of a PhD.
    It is a very different matter lower on the totem pole where there are many people standing being the glass while the gun is being fired. And in theory the design submitted to the Council of bullet proof glassmakers should work, it depends very much on the ability of the Fellow to impart the technique. And a better luck next time to the Fellow is all well and good. It does little to help the ones standing behind with their brains spattered all over their future. For there is nothing in the system of Externals which can pick up the useless, the malicious or the downright insane.
    So, to my mind those who need an advocate with clout get nothing and the system protects itself.

    • Jilly Says:

      Come again, Vincent?

      • Vincent Says:

        The Prof’ at the end of his days suffering from progressive dementia or tired and emotional for that matter, and still doing his work after a fashion with the undergrads. There is nothing and no one to mitigate the damage he/she can do. The quality control that the external examiners exert is to those who wish to join the system and not to the vast majority of customers of the system.
        A drunk barrister as with a drunk academic adviser while tragic is not of the same category.

  2. John Flood Says:

    I have never really understood the role or need for external examiners. As one who has taught in both US and UK universities, I don’t see anyone denigrating the American system because they don’t use externals. If faculty are to be trusted to teach and set exams, why not give them the freedom to grade without monitoring? A system of appeals should take care of reviews.

    Think of the time that could be saved by not attending boards, etc, and could be devoted to research instead.


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