Skip to main content

Case study – The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest provider of part-time, supported distance higher education and open learning in the UK. The University employs around 1,000 salaried academic staff, plus there are well over 4,000 Associate Lecturers who are responsible for teaching students through correspondence tuition.

The OU worked with the (then) HEA to test the Professional Development Course for external examiners (PDC) in early 2017. To an extent, professional development for external examiners at the OU was not a new idea, since a network was already in place and lunchtime sessions were being held twice a year for staff who are examiners at other institutions to share their knowledge and experiences.  The PDC was seen to offer multiple benefits: a chance for senior staff members working in quality assurance roles to support the development of external examiner practice, and to benchmark practice against sector developments and other universities; support for newly appointed external examiners to understand the requirements of the role; encouragement and a ‘badge’ for staff members who might be interested in examiner roles in future. Engagement with the PDC at the OU benefited from finding a strong senior champion with a QA remit, enthusiastic academic staff members with external examining experience who were willing to put in the effort required to take on the delivery, backed up by access to administrative support services and resources to cover the costs involved. Taking on delivery of the blended course, rather than a fully online version, enabled the existing practice of networking examiners to be developed further, especially for new and aspiring examiners.

The PDC has proved popular. To date, eighty-one OU staff members have completed the PDC, from a diverse range of disciplines and both academic and professional/work-based perspectives. Organisation and administrative aspects of the course have proved to be a major consideration, and having access to an experienced support staff member was important because of the need to manage a waiting list. Positive feedback from participants coupled with high levels of demand for places means that it is likely that the course will be continued, and plans are currently being put in place to run the course twice during the 2019/20 academic year. For practical reasons, the facilitators would like to run the course at least twice a year in future (in Autumn and Spring) because that way their grasp of the course will be retained. Responsibility for the administration of the course has recently been transferred from the office of the PVC for students to the professional development services section of the human resources team. This is seen as a positive development in terms of mainstreaming the provision (for example in future the PDC will be recorded as mainstream staff development on staff members’ official records). However, resources for administration and hosting will need to be secured to make sure the course takes place.  

Having professional development for external examiners under the AHE banner is important to help to ensure the provision retains a high profile. For the future sustainability of the professional development for external examiners, it will be important to promote wider take up and embedding of the course in what academics across the sector will consider simply a regular career development activity.