External examiners: “the guardians of higher education”

This week heralded the publication of the Review of External Examining Arrangements in Universities and Colleges in the UK, a cross-sector analysis by Universities UK (chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch), the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. The purpose of the review was as follows:

For Universities UK and GuildHE to review external examining arrangements in the UK in order to consider and recommend what improvements need to be made to ensure that they effectively support the comparability of academic standards and are robust enough to meet future challenges.

Why is this important you ask? Well, external examiners play a key role in safeguarding academic standards and quality assurance and are “the guardians of the public purse and of the reputation of UK higher education”, according to the 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education. While it is important for one’s academic reputation and development to be an external examiner, questions arise about a perceived lack of respect accorded to some external examiners in terms of financial burdens, high workloads and disparity in rewards across institutions. Furthermore, a 2005 report from the HEA entitled The Future for External Examining and the Higher Education Academy noted that payments to external examiners had “remained unchanged for years” and that “external examiners argue passionately that the fees do not reflect their status as ‘guardians of UK higher education’ ”. There are numerous tales of disparity between the rhetoric and examples of practice, with a 2009 NUS report, External Examiners: Their Role in UK Higher Education, acknowledging that different institutions pay contrasting rates, with “£375 a day cited at one university and £200 a day at another”.

Why am I interested in this? Well, I have recently been appointed to my first external examining position at Middlesex University, so I am interested how the recommendations from the Universities UK report will be adopted. I’m not particularly fussed about the level of remuneration per se — this isn’t a rant about wanting more money — more about the importance accorded to the role itself. Being an external examiner is a crucial part of maintaining the integrity of the UK higher education system, so the responsibilities and workload required to do the job properly have to be accounted for and fully appreciated.

(Thanks to James Derounian, National Teaching Fellow at the University of Gloucestershire, for his recent Times Higher Education article on this subject: Used and Abused?)

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