On Thursday morning, I travelled to another university to act as an external examiner for one of their degrees. Before I left the house, I listened to the Today programme. On the show, I heard Tom Richmond from the think-tank Reform complaining that universities were “handing out incredible numbers of top degrees” because the system allows them to “mark their own homework”. As an academic who was leaving the house that morning for the exact purpose of marking another institution’s “homework”, this felt a little galling.
There are certainly incentives for universities to make sure graduates get the best degrees they possibly can – by providing pastoral support, excellent teaching, and university regulations that treat them fairly. These incentives, incidentally, come exclusively from government-mandated metrics and league tables that reward universities for the number of “good degrees” students achieve.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that a generation of graduates, who are hyper-aware of the competitiveness of the environment into which they are graduating and the debts they have incurred while studying, are working harder than ever to get the best possible degrees. All of these factors might explain a rise in degree results that goes beyond a simple narrative of artificial grade inflation.
The part of the Reform report that I found most difficult to countenance, though, was the complaint that universities were “marking their own homework”. At this time of year, between marking our students’ finals and gowning up for graduation, hundreds of academics traditionally receive parcels of other institutions’ work. We read this sample and report on its standards. Before it reaches us, this sample of work has already been through an internal process of second-marking or moderation in which two academics agree each mark.
The courses themselves, and every assessment taken by the students, have also been designed with reference to guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency, which provides descriptions of what the standards are for an undergraduate degree in every discipline. By the time we eventually arrive at an exam board with the students’ marks in front of us, there have already been dozens of procedures to ensure academic standards are maintained. In an international context, this is an unusually high level of oversight. Indeed, to my academic friends from the United States, the external examiner system seems an extraordinary intrusion on academic judgement.
The Reform report begins with the presumption that these existing methods of assuring standards are inadequate. It quotes from research that it says finds “little evidence to support the view that external examiners are an effective means to safeguard academic standards”. This quotation is from a report produced in 2015 by the now defunct Higher Education Academy. The HEA’s conclusion, however, was not to eliminate the external examiner system but to modify it. For example, in response to the concern that institutions too often recruit their external examiners from a narrow pool of similar universities, the HEA suggested a central system for allocating examiners instead.
Reform’s report proposes something far less workable. They suggest an element of standardised testing across universities – the equivalent of A-levels or GCSEs, but for undergraduates. This would completely alter the essence of a university education, with a national curriculum edging out any teaching of experts’ particular cutting-edge research specialisms. This report might seem like another attention-seeking bit of blue-sky thinking from an organisation that also proposes restructuring the NHS like a supermarket chain or replacing doctors’ secretaries with chat-bots, but it was soon given a positive reception in comments by Education Secretary Damian Hinds and by the newly rebranded Office for Students.
If there are proposals to abandon the procedures of external examining, then we should be aware that the system as it stands has virtues too. Not least, it maintains both the independence and expertise of academics. In academia, the practice of peer-review offers the only practicable way for experts to assess experts. In every aspect of university life, we are therefore unavoidably marking our own homework, as far as soundbites are concerned. But to deliberately misunderstand this is to reject the principle of academic expertise.
Alice Bennett is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope University.