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External Examining – a missing dimension in diversifying higher education?

23 May 2022 | Tim Stephens Tim Stephens, an educational developer (Curriculum) at University of the Arts London, shares his experience.

I had wanted to be an external examiner in the arts for many years…but there seemed very little information publicly visible on how to access such roles. Then, during the pandemic, a door appeared unlocked and I applied to an advertised External Examiner vacancy via a regional network email and with a rather firm push from the shoulder; arguing strongly that my race, experience of cultural difference and discrimination, my equality work - alongside education experience - might be insightful; gained my first appointment. Now I run awareness sessions for prospective External Examiner BIPOC colleagues in my institution. But, this is not where the problem lies…

How do we change a system, like higher education, to be fully inclusive – less biased on race – in terms of student outcomes, staff representation and curricula diversification or representative knowledges? Simple, right? Put in place responsive structures, differentiated systems, make representative the people that run them, and provide incentives for making, or censure for not making, positive change.

Because, it was just over twenty years ago that those of us chipping away at the cutting edges of discrimination and equality in education were buoyed up by the Hepple, Coussey and Choudhury recommendations for new equality legislation (2000). We had hopes attendant on a radical and deep-seated reform that might address the generally agreed ‘failure’ of the 60’s first generation and second generation 70’s anti-discrimination legislation to enact genuine structural change to disadvantages experienced across the board in terms of race, gender, disability and by other campaigning communities. Their argument was that we need substantive, real, not just formal, theoretical or legislative, equality.   

So, how is it that our External Examiners (EE), those colleagues with decades of educational experience, specialist disciplinary expertise and advice aplenty for how courses and curricula might develop, are not a representative group in terms of ethnicity? Well, to what extent, we do not know… HESA do not currently collect nor request this data from HEI and some universities, schools and departments do not routinely collect this information. Perhaps, if EEs are identified wholly with monitoring quality, upholding standards and maintaining disciplinary tradition it is no wonder that the club is restricted in membership. What would the motivation be for organising things otherwise? This is where I believe our professional, disciplinary and academic networks function in too conservative a manner. They must be extended, and function otherwise.

Some of the key failures of anti-discrimination legislation, according to the Hepple review can be described as a mind-set that is defensive and reactionary with the onus on the complainant; bureaucratic and in-ward looking and hence specialist, and traditionalist, invested in maintaining the status quo. It could be that this also describes the mind-set, or expectations for the role of an External, if wholly identified with monitoring, procedural and QA functions.

Yet, this does not need to be the case. Not long after my appointment I took up the option of training through Advance HE’s course for new, or experienced, examiners. This was an excellent experience, one I would highly recommend. Delivered online we did cover the importance of maintaining standards, the dynamics of social moderation, procedural aspects at Exam Boards, but also, the complexities and uncertainties at the heart of assessment regulation, also, positive change and scope for impacting academic and institutional development, and, equality.

Hepple’s recommendations, the impetus behind unification of equality legislation some 10 years after their review, in the 2010 Equality Act, introduced a new mind set. The ‘vision of comprehensive and transformative equality’ set up a positive ethic: “Eliminating discrimination, harass­ment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by the Act; Advancing equality of opportunity be­tween persons who share a relevant charac­teristic and persons who do not share it; [and] Fostering good relations between per­sons who share a relevant characteristic and persons who do not share it.The positive duty ‘mindset’ is consultative and dialogic, one of promoting change, developing and enhancing equality best practice through being attentive, responsive and then requiring participation to achieve shared access, and producing good results in terms of equity. These coincide very much with the quality enhancement nature, or so it seems to me, of the EE role, and advice I seek to offer.

There is widespread agreement shown in the UK HE statement of intent, from May 2019, to protect the value of degrees over time. UUK/GuildHE published a report on progress since the statement.  The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment seeks to ensure the reliability of degree standards across the UK. In England, the Office for Students’ Condition of Registration B4: is that HEIs ‘must ensure that qualifications awarded to students hold their value at the point of qualification and over time, in line with sector recognised standards.’ Each have been working together to maintain standards and with none of which I would disagree. In January of this year, UUK published an update explaining the ways universities are tackling grade inflation and include the results of a survey of what has happened since the publication of the statement of intent. This includes a reference to the significant consultative research project on external examining practice, which the QAA has recently undertaken and on which it is due to report later this spring.

My hope however is that the QAA statement of agreed principles of external examining will buoy up our continuing efforts promote inclusion and to diminish discrimination, particularly in terms of race and ethnicity in UK HE. Diversifying recruitment of EEs, underpinned by monitoring and target setting, can bring real progress, in the unnecessarily too long-fought battle for simple racial equality in HE. EEs can change the system from within, but only where doors are already visible (transparently advertised with long lead-in times), open (to those with less seniority and more professional experience) and even perhaps, welcoming (with statements, and actions, to support this).

  1. Hepple, B. (2010) ‘The New Single Equality Act In Britain’ The Equal Rights Review Vol. 5
  2. Barnard, C. Hepple, B. (2000) Substantive Equality. The Cambridge Law Journal, 59 (3), 562-585
  3. Hepple B., Coussey, M., Choudhury, T. (2000) Equality: A New Framework - Report of the Independent Review of the Enforcement of UK Anti-Discrimination Legislation. London: Bloomsbury.
  4. UUK (January 2022) Update on Statement of Intent.
  5. UUK/Guild HE report on progress between May 2019’s Statement of Intent and December 2020.

Find out more about Advance HE's Professional Development Course for External Examiners

External examining is a key feature of the UK higher education system. This course comprises of two key parts: asynchronous online activities and reading, and two virtual workshops over two half-days, delivered via Zoom.  


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