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Case study: Supporting organisational development – Hartpury College

Hartpury College is a specialist sports and land-based college, with over 1,500 students undertaking qualifications in equine, sport, veterinary nursing, animal and land studies. The college started to award its own degrees from September 2018. Involvement in the Degree Standards project was timely as the college was undergoing significant strategic change, and the project provided professional development to an institution that describes itself as ‘relatively young in higher education terms.’

Approximately 35 staff members participated in professional development for external examiners in the 2017-18 academic year, mostly aspiring external examiners. The course has been used as a development opportunity for a range of staff members responsible for developing newly required institutional policies and practices. Participants report increased knowledge and understanding of degree standards and the role of external examining in ensuring consistency across the sector.  The opportunity to engage in the course is providing the institution with increased confidence that the approach to external examining reflects best practice, as well as ideas to support the development of institutional external examiner induction due to be delivered in 2018-2019.

The induction will be broader in scope as a result, to include the role of an external examiner in relation to academic standards and discussion of external reference points with the focus less on critical friend and more on degree standards. In addition, feedback from academic staff members suggests that they are able to identify changes to their own practice, for example improvements in the module files provided to examiner examiners. Promoting staff externality is an explicit aim of the college’s Teaching and Research Excellence Strategy, and external examining has been identified as one of the most effective ways to provide staff, many of whom are relatively early in their careers, with an opportunity to observe practices beyond their own institutional context. Levels of participation in the course, and numbers of staff engaged as external examiners have been set as measures within the action plan, which has helped to drive progress.

However, prioritising the time needed for preparation and participation in the developer programme has been difficult, in a small institution where the absence of two strategic level staff from one team has been hard to manage. In future, because of the size of the institution, opportunities for institutional facilitators to deliver the course, and therefore maintain their levels of competency, will be fairly restricted, and staff will probably need to invest significant time prior to course delivery revisiting the content and messages.

The college is interested in working more closely with Advance HE on recruiting participants to the course and would like to invite academics from other institutions to courses being delivered internally, as a way of adding value to course delivery.