Thursday, 28 June 2012

External examining: our happy lot

So regular readers will have noticed that I've been quiet for a few days. Sorry about that.

I've actually been off acting as an 'external examiner' in a completely different part of the country. For those of you who don't know, this is the system whereby universities call in academics from a range of other institutions to check on, support and generally help with the final stage of their assessment. 'Externals' are asked to read exam papers and questions, read a sample of all the work, come to the exam boards, and then comment at the end on everything they've seen.

Now this system has come in for a lot of flak recently. The Americans don't have this at all. The number of conferences and workshops held around the theme 'what is an external examiner for?' speaks to some uncertainty about their present and future role and point. There is some evidence, in some places, that externals are coming under pressure to allow grade inflation. There have been a few apparently nasty cases of external examiners being targeted or bullied if they are considered to be 'too tough' or 'a problem'. Standards are very, very difficult to 'compare' or 'bring into line' one with the other, and externals can't know about the whole field beyond where they've worked and where they've externalled. Last year a Review of External Examining recommended tidying up the whole system - standardising it legally, with respect to how much academics are paid for their work, in terms of what is published or given to students, and so forth. You get the picture.

But I have to say that I found the whole thing enormously positive. The administrators were incredibly efficient; members of staff agonised over each and every student who was sat slap bang on a borderline between a First and a 2.1, a 2.1 and a 2.2, and so on. They applied their regulations rigorously. They consulted the rules. They held two - count them, two - long meetings - to discuss mitigating circumstances, complaints and special cases. I was asked for my opinions all the time, and at the end, spoke up with four other academics from a range of institutions about what I thought... Which was essentially that they had a good course that could just do with a bit of tidying up here and there. Basically, they were great.

Amongst all the doom and gloom about British (and especially English) universities, all the hard challenges that lay ahead, all this was a bit of a respite and an oasis. Universities are full of conscientious people doggedly pursuing education, and the creation and dissemination of knowledge, in a harsh climate for all those values. Don't let anyone kid you out of that one, basic insight.

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