Friday, July 27, 2018

External examiners: expert viewpoint or out of date?

This is what I had to say of the UK's external examining system for the Times Higher Education magazine (the piece and a symposium can be found here):

‘In place of external examining as it currently operates, let’s introduce more rigorous programme reviews’

External examining is no longer fit for purpose.

The problem is not the increasing numbers of student assessments to review or degree programmes to check. It is the failure of universities to increase their resources for external examination in proportion with the sector’s expansion. They largely still pay the same paltry fee for the same few hours of externals’ time as they always did.

The result is that, apart from for dissertations, externals can rarely alter individual marks any longer. They simply don’t have the time to go through them all. So they are limited to either agreeing with everything, warts and all, making some systematic adjustment to marks, or calling for everything to be done again. In my experience, they typically approve just about everything without change, confining themselves to making various comments – usually enormously helpful – on how modules and programmes might be improved further.

Some colleagues argue that we should turn back the clock. If external examining is becoming too much of a rubber-stamp process, we need to increase the powers, time commitment and remuneration of externals, so they can do the job they once did. However, it is unclear how many colleagues would be willing to take on such an onerous task, even with greater compensation.

The right-of-centre think tank Reform argues that national standards should be guaranteed by pegging the distribution of degree classifications on particular courses to their students’ performance in national final-year assessment for each subject. This would seemingly cut out external examiners altogether, but it is a thoroughly bad idea as it would stifle innovation in curriculum design while encouraging teaching to the test.

Universities all claim to engage in some form of research-led or informed teaching. Yet many regulators and managers place research and teaching in different silos. If teaching should have parity with research, then it is high time it was considered in tandem with it.

So I’d propose a US-inspired approach. Let’s leave the annual ritual of marking and exam boards to academic departments and universities. In place of external examining as it currently operates, let’s introduce more rigorous programme reviews, involving external input, every five or so years.

Crucially, these would consider a department’s teaching and research strategies together, in terms of how they cross-pollinate to shape the curriculum.

Such reviews could feed into departmental planning and be of even more use than comments in the truncated tick-box forms used by examiners at present. What we have is formal sign-off that all is well; what we need is genuine challenge to improve.
Bureaucratic micromanagement for its own sake is not the road to climbing in
ternational league tables, reassuring students that their education is world class, or assuring employers that our graduates are ready for any challenge. It’s time we moved on.

Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School.

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