External examining

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External Examining in English - Report

“.. An additional strength of the current system the benefit of experience that Externals bring back to their home institutions should also be recognised and its value preserved. This requires that they be involved at the level of academic practice, not merely at the level of process.”


Colleagues are likely to be aware that the public debate over external examining is getting increasingly heated. Contributing to this debate are: ideas about the robustness and comparability of standards (for example in last summer’s report of the Parliamentary Select Committee); the HEFCE report on quality and standards; and the response of the universities in the form of the UUK review of external examining. External examining also plays an important role, alongside a strengthened QAA, in the vision for the student experience outlined in the Government’s recent framework paper, Higher Ambitions: the Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy. It is clear that external examining, which originated in relatively small and somewhat informal university communities, is now seen as a major element in institutional self regulation within a mass HE system, and, together with the QAA, as playing an overt role in quality assurance. But leaving aside for a moment the current sensitivity of the debate about standards, and the overwhelming pressure to provide prospective students with ‘quality information’, it is clear

  • That different institutions make very different demands;
  • That the role of the external differs widely across the sector;
  • That already stressed individuals undertake the role out of loyalty to colleagues and the profession;
  • and that all the time the pressures on individual externals continue to increase.

It is also probable that the assumptions about external examining entertained by HMG and its agencies (and also to some degree perhaps by the university-going public) do not altogether accord with the realities on the ground. The current debate about the comparability of degree standards is illuminatingly discussed in a new HEPI report.

At the same time, in the post-Dearing world, the role has been steadily changing. The changes have been long drawn-out, so that what Philip Martin remarked six years ago is still in process of becoming true.

A decade ago, the External Examiner’s role was largely taken up with the verification of grading and marks, and with the classification of individual student results through profiling. In recent years, those elements of scrutiny have been displaced by moderation of scripts (sometimes, indeed often, under the instruction that marks cannot be changed), the checking of formal procedures, and advice on how to avoid appeals or deal with problem students. Some Examiners have felt that their roles have been reduced – in a system where the computer averaging of marks prevails – to rubber stamping …. (2003: 15)

That dynamic is set to continue, and at the same time, the responsibility resting on the external will continue to increase.

The English Subject Centre is engaging with these challenges in a number of ways. Most recently, we have hosted a Forum on External Examining which aimed to generate evidence for the UUK Review, and to articulate ideas about the future of external examining in a discipline context. The report of this forum is now available. The introductory notes and references sent to Forum participants, which form a useful briefing on current issues, are included as appendices to the Report. The UUK Review itself was published in March 2011.

Our previous director, Philip Martin also produced a report which brings together the experience of a range of external examiners and reviews examining practices. It also contains a number of suggestions on which English Departments might choose to draw. A copy is available to download from our ‘reports’ area. A summary (Newsletter Issue 4) is also available to read.