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A House of Commons Select Committee inquiry in 2009 made recommendations in respect of external examining which prompted an appraisal of the system. The subsequent Finch Report (UUK 2011) led to proposals in respect of external examining which were largely incorporated into the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B7: External examining (henceforth to be referred to as Chapter B7). 3. In 2015 HEFCE commissioned a review to consider how those reforms have been implemented and to revisit the concerns expressed by the Select Committee in 2009.
Objectives of the review
A joint research project with the University of Cumbria
Carried out between 2012 - 2013 Funded by: The Higher Education Academy (HEA) and The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Professor Margaret Price (Oxford Brookes University) Professor Sue Bloxham (University of Cumbria) Birgit den Outer and Jane Hudson (Oxford Brookes University)
It is claimed that the British external examiner system provides ‘one of the principal means for maintaining UK threshold academic standards within autonomous higher education institutions’ (QAA, 2012: B7, p2) through an accountability process which specifically addresses the quality of student performance. However, understanding of how academic standards are constructed and used by external examiners is extremely limited. Whilst there have been various studies and reports on external examining, those that consider examiners’ consistency in both understanding and applying academic standards have been singularly lacking.
This enquiry, conducted by researchers from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Cumbria and funded by the QAA and HEA, aimed to investigate how academic standards are conceived, constructed, and used before, and in the process of, external examining.
Key findings from the research are that contrasting views with regards to the role of the external examiner result in different perspectives on standards and how, and indeed if, they should be applied. However, where standards are seen to be part of the role, the research found that there is considerable potential for different judgements on what constitutes quality and shared language does not ensure shared interpretation of common criteria in the complex judgment of student work. Consequently the report recommends that more and regular opportunities need to be created for external examiners, and indeed markers in general, to share, shape and align their standards. In addition it asks whether stakeholders in Higher Education are being done a disservice if the role of the external examiner is reduced to that of a process checker.
The research report is available here.
This project received full approval from the University Research Ethics Committee.
Note: Recruitment processes for this project sought to represent external examiners from specific disciplines and from institutions belonging to different mission groups before recruiting on a first-come-first-serve basis.