‘Radical change’ is needed to reassure public on standards says THE

Follow up to earlier post on this topic.

According to Times Higher Education: “‘Radical change’ is needed to reassure public on standards”.

External examiners would be interviewed by inspection teams and universities would give a clear indication of the number of hours they expect students to study under plans to boost public confidence in the quality of higher education. A new “public-facing” role for the Quality Assurance Agency and an independent channel for external examiners to report concerns are also among the wide-ranging proposals published in a report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 1 October.

Hefce’s Teaching, Quality and the Student Experience sub-committee, chaired by Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, was set up to investigate concerns about standards raised last year. Its key message is that while there is “no systemic failure” in the sector, allegations of poor quality pose a serious risk to its reputation, and “radical change” is required in the way that information about quality and standards is communicated.

It is important to stress that the ‘radical change’ here relates to the communication of information, not to the wider issues about the assurance of standards and quality (and to note that the word ‘radical’ appears only once in the report, in the foreword). Articulating arrangements for the assurance of academic standards in a clear and accessible way is notoriously difficult – as the IUSS select committee discovered when talking to the VCs from Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities.

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External Examiner review (and quality and standards)

Universities UK is to undertake a review of external examining

A press release from Universities UK gives some background to the recently announced review of external examiners:

In his keynote speech at the Universities UK Annual Conference, President Professor Steve Smith announced that UUK, together with GuildHE and in collaboration with agencies such as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), would lead a UK-wide review of external examiner arrangements. This review will seek to ensure that the system remains robust, recommending any improvements uniuk240px
which would continue to support the comparability of academic standards and meet future challenges.

The Group, which will be chaired by a Vice-Chancellor (to be announced) and include representatives from across the sector, will address various issues, including:

  • The need to develop Terms of Reference for the role, to support consistency
  • Reinforcing the specific role of external examiners in ensuring appropriate and comparable standards
  • Analysing the level of support given by institutions to external examining, both financial and professional
  • Current and future challenges and changing practice (such as modularisation) and their implications for external examining
  • Comparing the UK system with international practice

After 12 months, the Group will produce a report, highlighting the immediate short-term improvements, as well as longer term challenges and how these should be addressed.

Meanwhile, HEFCE has just announced the outcome of a study on quality and standards which has been picked up by the BBC. Its recommendations include:

  • a review is needed of publicly available information provided by higher education institutions (HEIs) to meet the needs of students, parents, advisers and professionals
  • a complete review of the external examiner system should be undertaken
  • the degree classification system should be improved so that it better reflects student achievement.

Looks like there will be a bit more work then beyond external examiners but these do not seem to be hugely challenging tasks (indeed they have been on the agenda for some time) and reflect the conclusions of the HEFCE report that “There is no systemic failure in quality and standards in English higher education (HE), but there are issues needing to be addressed”.

This UUK external examiner review, supported by the HEFCE study, represents a speedy response to the recent (truly dreadful) report of the IUSS Select Committee. The IUSS report recommends the implementation of one of the 1997 Dearing recommendations, rejected at the time, on the creation of a national system of external examiners. It is to be hoped that the UUK review arrives at something sensible. (For anyone with a longish memory on these things it feels a bit like 1994-95 again and the Graduate Standards Programme and its reviews of external examining.)