June 25, 2008

Bullies from Kingston University tried to bully an External Examiner

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".


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".


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".

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