Lighting up the external examiner system
Observers of higher education in these islands may believe that quality assurance processes introduced over the past decade or two are the key guarantors of quality and standards in universities. Without wanting to get into a debate on whether this is true or not, it is worth observing that a much older and on the whole robust framework for securing standards has been the external examiner system.
Under this system all examination scripts and assessed essays and projects are open to external scrutiny by an examiner appointed from another institution, and often from another country. These individuals consider the overall results, assess borderline performances by individual students and do spot checks across the whole range of results. Their task is to confirm that the overall standards adopted by the internal examiners are in line with the norm across the sector and that individual students have been fairly and appropriately assessed. They are also typically asked to comment on the general approach of the department and the suitability of the syllabus adopted. Generally external examiners receive a small fee, but it would be fair to say that this fee doesn’t even come close to rewarding them for time and effort. External examining is highly demanding and very pressurised, as the tasks set out above typically have to be performed over a very short space of time.
Lecturers and the universities more generally get much advice and support from external examiner reports. To students on the other hand these reports and the associated activities are almost entirely hidden, and therefore they do not have an opportunity to benefit from the confidence building aspects of the system. For this reason it has now been proposed that external examiner reports should be available for students to see. While some fear that this might cause the examiners to be less frank and forthright in their comments, in the end this is an argument against almost all freedom of information. It seems to me that the proposal is right, and that the reports should be openly available (perhaps without those comments that are ad personam evaluations of individual students). Doing so will also help make the case for continuing (and maybe better) support for this vital aspect of higher education.