Posted tagged ‘external examiners’

Lighting up the external examiner system

April 8, 2011

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.

Whose grade is it anyway?

November 23, 2010

One of the key performance indicators of higher education is the grade given to a student as part of the examination or assessment process. In order to ensure that the grade is appropriate and merited and is not influenced by improper considerations, various safeguards are built in. These include the consideration of grading by external examiners and boards of examiners, where marks can be reconsidered and adjusted.

However, such processes can become controversial, and indeed can raise accusations of inappropriate decision-making. In one Irish institute of technology recently some lecturers boycotted graduation ceremonies because they were unhappy about the adjustment of marks by appeal boards. One Canadian university has recently been in the spotlight for allegedly forcing a professor to lower his marks.

As the debate over the past year about ‘grade inflation’ has shown, the way in which student performance is assessed is one of the most critical issues in higher education. In order to ensure that grades are seen as appropriate and are respected, the system used needs to be impartial, transparent and intellectually demanding. In this context however, groups and boards can get it wrong just as easily as an individual, particularly if they pay excessive attention to institutional interests.

Occasionally it is suggested that the answer is to make this an administrative process, subject to bureaucratic procedures that will kick in particularly if the pattern of grades arouses suspicion, and more particularly still if grades are coming out too high. On the other hand, academic achievement is not a matter of administrative judgement, and should not become one. Equally however, the grades awarded are not necessarily an expression of ‘academic freedom’: I cannot insist that my marking standards should be applied even where they deviate from those of others.

There is no perfect way of dealing with this, but the one most likely to address problems is the system of external examiners, under which grades are checked by senior academics from other institutions to ensure that the system has integrity. However, this system, which relies heavily on personal and institutional goodwill, is coming under stress, in part because external examiners (now considered ’employes’ for revenue purposes) cannot be properly rewarded for what they do, and in part because the bureaucracy of assessment is threatening to overwhelm the system. Confidence in higher education depends strongly on assessment working well; we should be aware of that and, therefore, we should be willing to restate support for external examining as a vital element in maintaining a high quality system.

External quality control

May 23, 2009

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.