Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 15:12 UK

Examiner dropped course criticism

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Music magnifying glass
Should examiners judge against similar institutions or national standards?

An external examiner who judged that a university course had not reached the necessary standard was later contacted and persuaded to change her mind.

An internal e-mail, forwarded by readers of the BBC News website, shows efforts at Kingston University to avoid "bad publicity".

"We must avoid externals with these attitudes in future," says an e-mail.

The university says there was no pressure applied to the external examiner.

The external examiner told the BBC that "the kind of pressure that was applied was that it would have dire consequences for the music school if I didn't change the report".

'Devalue'

The e-mails surrounding a report into Kingston University's music degree were forwarded in the wake of academic whistleblowers claiming that degree standards were being lowered.

The external examiner system, which brings in academics from other universities to provide an independent perspective, is under scrutiny from the higher education watchdog.

A report from the Quality Assurance Agency warns that there can be "gaps between institutional ambitions... and the practices of staff in departments".

E-mails submitted to the BBC raise questions about the selection of external examiners and what happens to unflattering reports.

An external examiner's report on a music degree course at Kingston University in 2004 identified weaknesses.

The report observed that students "producing not just barely acceptable but sometimes unacceptable work are attaining passes at Honours level".

The examiner warned that some work had been "overmarked" and that "it is surely important not to over-reward this work and thereby devalue the Degree".

'Damning'

On a crucial "yes" or "no" question about whether the standards were comparable with similar programmes in other UK institutions, the examiner answered "no".

An e-mail to department staff highlights the response: "Can we ask her to amend that so it is less damning... We must avoid externals with these attitudes in future - we cannot afford this type of bad publicity."

A member of the university staff then contacted the external examiner - and following this conversation, the examiner changed their view.

At issue was whether standards should be judged against other similar types of university - such as new universities trying to recruit a wider range of students? Or should there be an absolute level of standards, taking a benchmark from older universities with a more academic student intake?

On the basis of comparing the course to similar types of universities, it was decided that standards were also similar, which allowed a positive answer.

Subsequent e-mails, accepted as authentic by the university, then set out a process of finding a replacement external examiner.

'Constructive feedback'

These indicate the type of examiner that was needed. "I think that it is important that the Examiner is sympathetic to and familiar with the challenges we face... and would be constructive in their feedback."

The rules on external examiners have not been broken in any way in this process - and Kingston University says that it is entirely appropriate to look for external examiners who will have "a good understanding of the teaching environment and associated issues such as widening participation".

But it raises some substantial questions about how such self-regulating systems operate in a competitive, globalised higher education system.

When universities are selling courses and depend on a good reputation, should they still be allowed to choose their own external examiners?

If universities want to be judged against similar peers rather than the upper reaches of higher education, does that mean there should be a public recognition that degrees represent such different ability levels?

When students are paying fees for courses, should the reports of external examiners be published and made available to the public?

Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, says that the role of external examiners should not be mistaken for an "inspectorate".

Their reports can help universities to improve - and he says that it was decided against making full reports public because that would make it less likely that examiners would be "candid".

But the QAA repeats the central role of external examiners as a "key feature of the UK's approach to maintaining the academic standards of higher education awards".


Send us your comments on this story, using the form below.

Precisely the same thing happened to me while teaching in post-92 in the north east some years ago. We appointed a new external, who I had been an MA student with and who now worked at a Russell [Group] university. I knew her to be firm but fair. I was delighted when she was appointed, because I feared that we'd been inflating grades for a long time, and in particular turning a blind eye to poor research and writing skills. In the first draft of her report, the EE refused to tick the 'this programme is up to snuff' box on exactly those grounds. The Dean of our school then phoned her up, and in a conversation which bordered on bullying, warned her that if she didn't amend her report, she would get a reputation as an 'awkward customer' which would impede her future career progression.

As with A-level marking and much internal marking of degree work within universities, the external moderation of samples should be anonymous. The examiner shouldn't know whether they're marking work from the University of Oxford or Poppleton.
Yorkshire Academic, York

I left academia because I felt completely disappointed in the system. Last year I detected a large number of plagiarised material - nearly 50% of students plagiarised work, as sad as it sounds, it is not unheard of and students seem to find "safety in numbers". I wrote a detailed report of the incidents and brought it to the attention of the external examiner during a course board. The chair of the Board said that the board meeting was not the appropriate forum to bring this up. My question then was "where is the appropriate forum then?". The QAA at my university has become a laughable exercise of back patting.

That was the straw that broke the camel's back and I decided to go back to industry. Funnily enough I find myself doing more research than at the university.
Lecturer gone back to industry, London, UK

A university is a university is a university. The idea that lower standards should apply at a newer university, and that an external examiner should be "sympathetic to and familiar with the challenges we face" is shameful special pleading. If a student's work is not good enough for an honours degree at an approximately equivalent standard to other universities - all of them, old, new or ancient - then that student should be awarded a different qualification. It's not an exact science, of course, but assuming the external examiner's comments can be calibrated with standards elsewhere, and assuming the examiner is not malicious or in some way prejudiced, than the university should bite the bullet. Otherwise, they are simply looking for a soft touch. If this approach prevails, then we should have a national system to identify universities that award degrees, and universities that award sort of degrees because it's very hard for them here and we don't want to be too nasty or we ! won't get enough students. The lesson is clear - such universities are not to be trusted with appointing their own examiners. And of course examiners are not inspectors (I know that much, I used to be one, and I have also done some examining) - that is merely confusing the issue. Examiners safeguard the standards of qualifications - given half the chance. Shame on you, KU!
Tim, Beaumaris

Lower ranked universities like KU have lower initial entry requirements, therefore it is hardly a surprise that if you mark according to standards at a higher university, grades are going to be alot lower. Is it right that a university has 80% of people getting 2.2's etc, it will simply cause less people to apply thus damaging the institutions ability to improve.

The key to those of you thinking well that isnt fair, is that it is up to employers to distinguise the standards between unis and they should know that a 2.1 in Economics from Nottingham Uni is worth more than a 2.1 from Nottingham Trent (just for example).
Jono, Birmingham

Degree classifications are a joke. There is no consistency within universities let alone across institutions. Some departments ignore the first year, others do not. Some place more weight on the final year, others do not. Some take the mean score, some take the median, yet others have even more convoluted scoring systems. Some departments are well known for never awarding 3rds. Others rarely give out 1sts.

As an employer it's incredibly difficult for me to decide if a 2:1 at, say, Oxford is 'better' than a first class awarded by an ex-poly. I often end up using A-levels as a more objective guide, or insisting on individual degree exam marks. Degree classification has sadly become meaningless.
Simon, Manchester

Having today sat at an Exam Board at Kingston University where I was told I was marking too generously whereas last year I was told I was marking too meanly and in the meanwhile employers ask "have you got any more like this one.." I take all this with a pinch of salt. I know what I am doing which is enabling young people to get a job.
David Haskins, Kingston upon Thames, UK

We are a recording studio and we used to take interns for music technology from more or less any university. The standard has fallen so low now that we only accept one course from one university. All the others are hopeless.
Andrew Graeme, Inverness Scotland

For a bit of balance, I've been teaching in a science subject at a leading university for fifteen years. I don't think standards have changed much over that time - a first class degree still indicates good ability, a II:1 indicates reasonable competence, and a II:2 can mean anything from "reasonably smart, but spent too much time on other stuff" to "just not very clever". Further, in that fifteen years, I've never felt any general pressure to change the grade profile, though we naturally (and correctly) worry about a module that has an average way out of line with the others, in either direction.
A lecturer, Edinburgh, UK

I have taught and done research in physical sciences at a leading Russell group university for over 30 years and have acted as external examiner for BSc, MSci and PhD degrees at many universities in the UK and Europe. Our best (top 10%) students are as good as ever despite the low level of maths training that they get at school. What hat changed over the last decade is that universities now have to take on a significant number of poorly motivated home students and as many as possible overseas students to balance their budgets. If departments cannot meet financial targets they will eventually be closed. These pressures inevitably mean that entrance qualifications are lowered and degree courses are continuously dumbed down so that the weak students can cope and eventually get a degree. Even the weak and demotivated students expect to get an upper second because they have "paid the fees".

League tables add to the problem since more firsts and upper seconds give us more points whereas we are marked down for failing or throwing out weak students. The challenge for university teachers is to keep the best students motivated and inspired with challenging concepts, whilst making sure that the weak can still get something useful out of their courses. Foreign students do have language problems but they can learn quickly if they mix well with home students. When a class has too many foreign students, say more than 10%, this beneficial mixing tends not to occur.
An anonymous professor

I am a postdoctoral research associate at a UK university and am continually frustrated at the standard of postgraduate students embarking on M.Sc. and Ph.D. courses in my science department. Many of them have the bare minimum of English, despite the University supposedly requiring a minimum qualification in written and spoken English. This means that even the most basic day-to-day communication is difficult, and any discussion of their work beyond the most rudimentary, is impossible. More worryingly many students do not have a first degree in a relevant subject; they are embarking on a Ph.D. with only high-school level knowledge of their subject, if that. Three years later they receive a doctorate. In my department the students are not required to discuss their work in meetings or seminars outside our laboratory; they can conduct an entire Ph.D. without ever presenting their work to, or being challenged by, another member of faculty beyond their supervisor, in whose interest it is that they should get their qualification. I suspect that my department is not alone. The UK Ph.D. system also means that the viva voce exam is attended by only one external and one internal examiner, a system which places a huge responsibility on one academic to potentially fail a student; they never do. I doubt whether our students would embark on a Ph.D. at a university on the continent, where they are required to be examined by a panel of academics and consequently where their broader knowledge would be tested and found wanting. The postgraduate degrees currently being awarded in the UK devalue mine and those of my contemporaries. I hope that the relevant authorities take notice of the huge response that this report has generated.
Anon, UK

I work for a smaller University and have some sympathy with the points being made by Kingston. Casual readers outside of the sector should be aware that, although important, a course's external examiner is still a lone voice. I have encountered situations in the past where an external examiner may behave as something of a maverick and may simply regard differing practice (compared to their own) as bad practice. The external examiner's contributions to the assessment process and important to ensure fairness to students within a course. They do not, and should not override the academic judgement of a collective department.
Anon, Liverpool

Students of course are no longer privileged candidates who count themselves lucky to be accepted into an academic community where their thirst for academic growth and personal development can be nurtured. In my thirteen years of experience in HE UK Universities as Senior Lecturer and External Examiner students have morphed from valued members of an academic community into paying customers. This marketisation effect has been hugely detrimental to the character of the Universities. It could have been resisted in maintaining quality and resisting the effects of neo-marketisation speak. Everyone is at it. Students are now ‘Stakeholders’. New validated programmes of study are described as ‘products’. The vast majority of students that I encountered in the latter part of my career were disrespectful of the principles of what a University should be. They saw their degrees simply as an irritating rite of passage and increasingly as a right of ownership.

Plagiarism was (and continues to be) rife within Higher Education. Plagiarism was, in my experience, tolerated by most senior staff for fear of student appeals and litigation. Marks were inflated for belligerent or failing students at sub-boards with a weather eye of League Tables. Minutes were excised, adapted, modified through Chair’s Action and protesting academics harassed into keeping their mouths shut at the main Boards. Students who complain of poor marks on coursework are able to persuade administrators to lobby academic staff for better marks. Whole tranches of level C exam scripts are unreadable as the candidates are unable to write. Senior staff, however, overwrite first markers comments, tout papers around to junior staff (some of whom have not even taught on the courses concerned) and pressurise them into passing candidates.
Kevin

Well, that's what happens when you privatise education. Is anyone surprised?
Rob, Basildon, Essex

University managers have been wanting to get rid of externals for years. I suggest we abolish all the standards bodies as well, since they to are clearly just an embarrassment and, like the externals, an unnecessary expense. If we are giving people degrees because that's what they have paid for, then why ask about the quality of the work?
PS, Newcastle

I have just completed a university degree in a technology-related subject and I have been consistently appalled at the inflated grades awarded to many of my peers throughout the course. In my opinion, some of them should not even graduate but in reality, most will probably walk away with a very respectable overall result.

Based on my own experience, I feel that the recent reports of some lecturers turning a blind eye to cheating may not go far enough. I can testify that on occasion, a minority of lecturers actively aided and abetted cheating in order to bolster the grades of the worst-performing students. Others often 'bent' the rules to extremes in pursuit of the same goal. As a result, many people learned very little because they did not need to, and sadly, they were not inclined to take any initiative for the sake of educating themselves.

Additionally, I felt that that the examination system at this particular university needed overhauling, because all too often the questions simply tested a student's short-term memory as opposed to their understanding of a subject.

The whole experience has left me feeling angry and let down for two reasons: Firstly, the assessment system is devaluing the results that students with genuinely good abilities get. Secondly, having had some industry experience prior to my degree, I've already witnessed the impact of employing people who cannot (and in some cases have no desire to) perform effectively in the workplace. Usually they make everyone else's job harder and because they are not good value for money, the company's overheads (and therefore profits) suffer.

If my experiences and observations are common, then the impact of declining university standards on the British economy must be quite substantial.
Darren, London

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