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Leading change in external examining

14 Feb 2020 | Dr Geoff Stoakes and Dr Erica Morris Dr Geoff Stoakes, Special Adviser, Advance HE (pictured) and Dr Erica Morris, Academic Associate, Advance HE, look at a new survey and national guidance for higher education providers on protecting the value of UK degrees, and how the Degree Standards project has been leading change in external examiner practice.

As part of sector initiatives on transparency, reliability and fairness in degree classification, and on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) have recently launched a survey to further understand institutional practices used to determine degree classification. This is in the context of debate and concern about putative grade inflation over recent years, with the Statement of Intent, published by sector bodies for UK higher education, having a vital function for the sector as it endorses a ‘commitment to protect the value of UK degrees and to transparent, consistent and fair academic standards’. [i] To support higher education providers implement the aims of this Statement of Intent, the UKSCQA and sector bodies have since issued guidance on producing a degree outcome statement and a checklist for validating this, as well as generic degree classification descriptions. [ii]

A conference on Protecting the Value of HE Qualifications in the UK, held by Advance HE, GuildHE, Universities UK and QAA (22 May 2019, London) explored responses to sector work on degree classification and highlighted the achievements of the Degree Standards project. [iii] 122 delegates attended this forum, giving them an opportunity to consider the Statement of Intent, which points to how institutions can enable academics to be external examiners and engage in ‘professional development and subject calibration activities’. [iv]

Specifically, the Statement of Intent points to training for external examiners, as offered by Advance HE’s professional development programme. Since 2016, 2,186 academic staff from 188 higher education providers have completed this professional development through blended or online modes of delivery. Forty-five higher education providers are now adopters of the professional development course, with their staff taking part in the Develop the Developer programme, so that they are recognised facilitators to deliver the course within their institution. We must look to the ways in which this professional development provision is leading change. Evaluation work has found that a majority of course participants (73%) have said that they will change their practice as an external examiner as a result of taking the course. [v] In terms of impact:

‘The course plays a role in strengthening the academic standards by enhancing understanding of the reference points and conceptions of the sector standards to be applied, as well as enhancing perceptions of the importance of the standards related aspects of the role. External examiners tended to say they were more confident and prepared to bring more challenge to programme teams than they might otherwise have done. Whether this impacts on degree standards would rely on institutions responding appropriately.’ [vi]

The guidance for institutions on producing a degree outcome statement recommends that the statement should cover a number of key areas, including content on assessment and marking practices and whether the provider has ‘made use of QAA’s guidance on External Expertise, or recruited external examiners who have taken part in Advance HE’s external examiner professional development programme.’ [vii] The generic descriptions for degree classifications may also be used for course development purposes, and ‘external examiner processes’. [viii]  There are indications that institutions are now beginning to ask prospective external examiners whether they have undertaken the programme.

There are, however, limits to the contribution that a generic professional development programme for external examiners can have on degree standards more generally. It is well-recognised that academic standards are generated and established by subject, discipline or professional communities, and that even if formally stated through, for example, subject benchmark statements, standards are socially constructed. Consequently, the Degree Standards project has worked with a range of subject and professional bodies to explore how calibration activity can effectively enable academics working in different institutions to develop a shared understanding of academic standards within a subject or discipline. The focus has been to develop a social moderation process so that academics can compare and discuss exemplars of anonymized student work, and build a consensus of the academic standards which such work needs to meet. Toolkits and case studies are available for subject communities to adapt and adopt this process of social moderation.

Professional development and subject calibration have important implications for a key aspect of the external examiner role, which involves: ‘comment on the quality and standards of the courses in relation to the national standards … comment on the reasonable comparability of standards achieved at other UK providers with whom the examiner has experience’. This means that an external examiner can help to ensure that the standards of student work (and grades or marks awarded) are reasonably comparable across the institutions with which they engage. External examiners are, however, limited in their influence on degree outcomes, as final classifications of degree programmes are determined through the use of institutional algorithms (or methods). The current survey of institutional classification methods and practices could help to realise the ambition articulated in 2016 that the sector ‘determine a sensible range of possible algorithms according to desired pedagogic and other outcomes’. [ix] Such a development would mean that the efforts of trained external examiners to ensure reasonable comparability of standards across UK higher education would be strengthened.

[i] Higher Education sector announces new initiative to protect value of UK degrees. UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment:

[ii] UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, Universities UK, GuildHE, QAA:

[iii] This is a five-year project (2016-21), led by Advance HE and managed by the Office for Students on behalf of England and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales.

[iv] Degree Classification. Transparency, Reliability and Fairness – A Statement of Intent (p. 2):

[v] Aimhigher Research and Consultancy Network (ARC) Degree Standards Project External Evaluation: End Year 3 Report. A Report to Advance HE by ARC Network. July 2019 (p. 19).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Guidance for Degree Awarding Bodies on Producing Degree Outcome Statements (p. 2):

[viii] Outcome classification descriptions (p. 1):

[ix] Revised Operating Model for Quality Assessment, 2016, (p. 6):

Understanding degree algorithms 2020: sector survey close today.

Find out more about Advance HE's work to support external examining and the Degree Standards Project

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