A friendship under strain

External examiners are poorly paid and overworked, and often too close to those they are supposed to monitor. The `critical friends' system is failing, says Lucy Hodges
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Sir Ron Dearing's long-awaited report on higher education - to be published this month - is expected to push the nether world of external examiners into unaccustomed limelight. Standards in universities, as well as funding, are high on Sir Ron's agenda. His committee is expected to recommend a major strengthening of the system which would extend the role of external examiners, make them more professional and put them in closer touch with individual subject associations. The reforms would be implemented by the new quality assurance agency for higher education.

External examiners are supposed to check that a degree awarded at one university is comparable to a degree awarded at another. They are also supposed to ensure that students are treated fairly by their internal examiners. But it is widely accepted that the system is breaking down.

"It is under considerable strain," says Dr Peter Wright, assistant director of the Higher Education Quality Council. "The system is not felt to ensure comparability between institutions. It is regularly reported that external examiners don't set out to ensure comparability and sometimes become captured by the institution's approach."

The overwhelming majority of external examiners are academics from other institutions. They are paid a pittance to work frenetically hard in the evening and weekends at a time of year when they are busy anyway, checking examination scripts, coursework and projects and sitting in on degree award meetings. Like the old Her Majesty's Inspectors they are there as critical friends. That means, in some cases, the relationship can become too cosy.

Sources close to the Dearing committee believe it will propose a "core" of senior academics who will be seconded to work as external examiners for substantial periods - 60 to 100 days a year - with groups of universities. There is talk of them being compensated by being given extra time for research. At present external examiners typically earn a few hundred pounds a course. Most could earn more working at Sainsbury's check-outs, which goes some way to explaining why it is proving difficult to recruit external examiners in some subjects.

But the main reason the old boy system of external examiners is breaking down is that it can't cope with the volcanic eruptions that have taken place in the higher education landscape this decade: the huge increase in student numbers; the proliferation of courses that let students study modules in a range of subjects; the abundance of new degree subjects; and the introduction of two semesters a year, which means a rolling programme of exams.

"We have an elite model which is adapted to a completely different system and it's creaking at the seams," says Ruth Williams, of the Open University's quality support centre, who is the co-author of a report on external examiners.

Professor Lee Harvey, director of the centre for research into quality at the University of Central England, agrees: "It's getting to the point where external examiners are becoming less and less able to intervene to maintain standards."

That is one reason why Professor Harold Silver, the other author of the OU report on external examiners, says external examiners should be looking at a university's assessment procedures rather than monitoring standards across subjects.

Most external examiners check only a sample of students' work on a given course because it is simply impossible for them to do more. They joke, for example, about scripts being delivered by the wheelbarrow load. "Most try to look at a reasonable sample but it's a huge task," says Angela Cooper, deputy registrar at the University of Wolverhampton.

The rule at her university is that 10 to 15 per cent of the work of students on a given module should be looked at, as well as all those who have been failed and a group in each of the degree classifications. Wolverhampton says it wants its external examiners checking no more than 300 pieces of work a year. It expects them to put in five days a year on the job, including a day's training and induction. For that, the external examiner is paid pounds 260, plus pounds 25 for each visit and an additional pounds 25 for the induction day.

"Everyone recognises it's in no way a professional remuneration for the work," says Mrs Cooper. "Most external examiners do the job because they believe it's important. It's valuable to them as well because they visit other universities and are able to get a different perspective."

External examiners contacted by The Independent agreed. "It gives me a measure of my own university's standards," says Jackie Collins, principal lecturer in occupational health at Wolverhampton University. "I enjoy it because it gets me into other departments," says Professor Gordon Campbell, president of the English Association and professor of Renaissance literature at Leicester University. "I go in and complain about things that are done wrong and note things that are done better than in other universities."

Neither believes the system is too cosy for its own good. Mrs Collins says she doesn't hesitate to say when she believes a student should not be passed. Professor Campbell sees his role as championing students' interests.

It is quite possible that not all academics are as scrupulous. One expert thought some external examiners acted as little more than rubber stamps. "If an external examiner is working in a department which is under pressure from the management to pass as many students as possible, that could result in real conflict. It would be easier for the external examiner to go along with it rather than rock the boat."

One thing is certain, however. Whatever the criticisms of the system, most academics like it. It gives them kudos and status. But critics would say it also enables higher education to totter along without having to address concerns about standards as seriously as it would otherwisen