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Universities to improve external examining systems


Universities UK (@UniversitiesUK) and GuildHE have asked the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to work with them to support universities review and improve their external examining practices.

A recent progress review of efforts to tackle grade inflation demonstrates that universities are already taking steps to review how they use external examiners – but inconsistencies remain and this could undermine confidence in degree classifications.

Suggested areas for improvement include the following:

  • Supporting more consistent use of and reference to sector recognised standards and national frameworks.
  • Increasing use of longitudinal data and appreciation of local contexts (including degree outcomes statements in England and Wales), supported by training, to assess performance across and within cohorts.
  • Reviewing eligibility criteria and qualifications required for appointment of external examiners, including incorporation of industry and PSRB expertise.
  • Improving transparency and consistency in processes for responding to external examiner reports, advice, and concerns.
  • Advising on activities that, at a minimum, external examiners should always expect to undertake and be consulted on.
  • Establishing content and format requirements for effective training and CPD of external examiners.

New principles will be added to the UKSCQA statement of intent alongside principles published in 2020 which clarified good practice in calculating degree classifications.

Professor Debra Humphris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton and Chair of UUK’s Student Policy Network, said:

“Universities recognise and continue to strengthen external examining processes to ensure degree awarding processes are fair, transparent and reliable. This work will help them take appropriate action as part of continued efforts to protect the value of degree qualifications.

“While there will be scope to adapt to local contexts, including subject specific requirements, greater consistency in use of external examiners will make it easier to compare awards.”

Professor Andrew Wathey, Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University, Newcastle and Chair of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, said:

“This new commitment to uphold the value of university qualifications will help maintain trust in our world-leading universities.

“A defined set of principles for external examining, and greater alignment and consistency, will make an important contribution to maintaining standards and quality assessment across the sector.”

Gordon McKenzie, CEO, GuildHE said:

“Teaching and learning in UK universities is rightly seen as outstanding with an international reputation for excellence, based in large part on their robust academic standards. Over the last few years the higher education sector has sought to further enhance the rigor of quality assessment processes and tackle unexplained grade inflation through our work on degree algorithms, degree outcomes statements and degree classification descriptors. 

“The external examining system provides a valuable source of external, expert opinion on the standards of university awards and we are pleased to further enhance this system through this new project.” 

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