External examining

It’s a few weeks into our semester which means it’s time to prepare and set the exams. The process here, as in many other UK universities, is that those who teach on the course set the questions. The exam is then checked by someone else, then by a committee, and then sent to the external examiner. The problem is that to get this all done in time, the exam has to be set before the middle of the semester. In many cases, people setting questions haven’t yet starting teaching their part of the course.

Personally, I think that setting exam papers so early in a semester is not ideal. It’s not maybe a major problem, but I would certainly prefer to set the paper after I’ve taught most of the course. I don’t think that setting it early is necessarily disastrous, it just feels like I’ll have a better sense of how to assess the students later in the semester than I do early in the semester. The UK is, however, so fixated with the external examiner system that it seems like it is virtually impossible to change it. I have, however, taught in the US where no such process exists and I don’t think the outcomes were worse as a consequence of this (or rather, I don’t think the students were particularly disadvantaged).

The main reason for having external examiners is, supposedly, to provide comparisons and to check that there is a reasonable consistency between UK universities. To me, this is a general comparison, rather than a specific course by course comparison. If so, why do they need to see the papers before the students sit the exams? Surely, if they were to look at the papers afterwards (when they attend the exam board for example) they could comment on the standards and, if there were any issues, this could be addressed for the next exam session. The point is to make sure that degree programmes across the UK are consistent not to specifically check (on an annual basis) individual courses. They are, of course, related but I don’t think anyone would suggest that every course at every university should be taught in the same way and at exactly the same level. What one wants to ensure is that graduates from different universities with the same degree classifications have, roughly speaking, the same skills and abilities.

I don’t really think, however, that there is much chance of changing the system anytime in the near future. Partly, I think it’s because it is seen as a strength of the UK system. We have external examiners who check everything and therefore our degrees are somehow more valid than those elsewhere. Furthermore, external examiners are now used to actually check for mistakes on exam papers. I think this is wrong. Why should we need external examiners to do this. Surely we could just as easily check our papers ourselves. There’s nothing particularly special about external examiners. They’re just academics from other UK universities. However, we now put so much emphasis on research that many (or at least some) academics can’t be bothered to put any real effort into setting their exams properly. Consequently we need this convoluted and lengthy process (involving external examiners) in order to compensate for the minority who can’t do their jobs properly. Personally, I’d rather we insisted that people did their jobs properly instead of all of us having to set our exams much earlier than is probably ideal.


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