The title of the paper was borrowed from the Higher Education Academy’s handbook for external examiners and it is pursued further in this paper as it was left unanswered. The paper sets out to explore the main characteristics of quality assurance (QA) and quality enhancement (QE) and consequently the word QA is replaced with the word ‘inspector’ and the word QE with the word ‘critical friend. In this context the External Examiner system is analysed in order to determine the nature of the relationship between External Examiners (EE) and higher education institutions (HEIs).
Universities in the UK have enjoyed a long tradition of autonomy and while the state intervention has been increasing in the last 30 years English Universities are still viewed to be relatively independent of the government when compared to many European countries (de Boer, 2007). However, this autonomy has increasingly been calling for more accountability measures. In addition, the last 30 years saw the transformation of the HE sector which from catering 6% of the population under 21 became responsible for educating 43% of those aged 18 to 30 to date (Deem 2004, p. 109). The demand for quality assurance (QA)became paramount when the sector saw a rapid expansion in 1992 when, through the Further and Higher Education Act, polytechnics were granted university status.
In response to these changes, the independent body Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), through the merger of existing entities with a quality assurance focus, was established in 1997 to safeguard quality across the sector. Its purpose has changed significantly since its inception; its current focus being on “examining the internal quality assurance systems at institutional level” (Lewis, 2012) and has been increasingly focusing on maintaining minimum standards through institutional audits. The main principles of QA in the UK are promoted by the Higher Education Academy and laid out in the ‘Quality Code’ promoted by the QAA.
The External examiner system is a component of the current QA framework; it has been in place since the 1880; which framework has gradually gained more importance until in 2012 it was identified as one of the most important element within QA framework. Chapter B7 of the The Quality Code states that “External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining UK threshold academic standards” (p.2). EE are independent of the institution they inspect although at the same time they are selected and employed by them. Their main remit is to maintain threshold academic standards, to ensure that the assessment process is fit for purpose and that standard for a given academic level is comparable across the sector and to enhance quality (Quality Code, Chapter 7, 2012, p.7).
A joint report by QAA, HEFCE and HEA “Quality enhancement and assurance – a changing picture?” in 2008 on the developments in QE and QA in the sector identified a shift from QA towards QE, a shift from audit checking towards a more developmental approach in the UK. To see what this development means the paper explores the characteristics of QA and QE.
QE is related more to the notion of reflection (Gvaramadze, 2008, p.448), it is seen as culture in which all activities have a QE element and continuous learning is encouraged (Gordon and Owen, 2009). It is viewed to be a continuous improvement where “quality enhancement means a constant effort to improve the quality of programme design, implementation and delivery” (Filippakou and Tapper 2008, p. 450). QE initiatives are of a ‘bottom-up nature’ and its emphasis on improving teaching and learning is more in harmony with the way quality is identified by academics (Hudson, 2010). Filippakou and Tapper (2008) point out that “quality enhancement can only blossom in the context of a flexible, negotiated evaluative model” (p.92) which description does not fit the current QA system as it will be demonstrated in the next section.
QA is often criticises for creating tension between those of being inspected and those of inspecting leading to the loss of trust (Smith and Oliver 2004). It has also been criticises for leading to the distortion of outcome of assessment (Trow 1995 p.22 in Harvey, 2002 p.206) and institutions adapting a culture of dramaturgical compliance (Barrow, 1999, p.33) especially in the light of recent developments where QA exercises are increasingly being seen as a marketing opportunity (Hodson and Thomas 2003, p.380). Furthermore, it is still perceived by many members of the academic community as compromising mutual trust and hence QA processes often face resistance especially from academics (Harvey, 2002, p.247). These characteristics, considered alongside the increased accountability precept of QA (Henkel 2004 in Gordon and Owen 2008, Kristensen, 2010) can establish that QA has a limited capacity to enhance quality (Filippakou and Tapper 2008, Hodson and Thomas 2003, Houston 2010, Coyle 2003).
Based on these characteristics the description ‘critical friend’ is attached to QE while QA is viewed taking on the role of an’ inspector’ with ticking boxes to ensure that set criteria are met.
While a shift away from QA toward QE is widely discussed within the sector the main drivers behind this shift, as identified in a recent report by the HEA are the interest of HEIs to look after their reputation given that the QQA reports increasingly affect the outcomes of national league tables. While the majority of respondents of this survey as part of the project “Quality enhancement and assurance – a changing picture?” (2008) were positive about QA processes on the whole, the external nature of these drivers is likely to put strain on honest QE initiatives. In addition, while most respondents made a very strong link between QA and QE the report itself questions this ‘so claimed’ harmony between QA and QE and suggests that historically QA has not been actively supporting QE:
“If the sector agrees […] that quality assurance would have no point if it didn’t have this [enhancement] output, while at the same time a large part of the sector can be seen to be very actively building the links and structures to achieve that output, it raises an uncomfortable question about what all the QA processes have been doing prior to strong links being in place” p.46.
In order to answer this intriguing question the word ‘inspector’ is replaced with QA and the word ‘critical friend’ with QE. The paper argues that while EE have the potential to fulfil the role of a ‘critical friend’ and enhance quality its ability to do so is limited due to the external nature of the systems. The next section provides a critical analysis of the documents that currently describe and shape the role of EE.
The Quality Code, published by the QAA describes the role of EEs as to maintain academic standards and to enhance quality; indicator 3 refers to the QE element:
“Awarding institutions expect their external examiners to provide informative comment and recommendations on good practice and innovation relating to learning, teaching and assessment observed by the external examiners and opportunities to enhance the quality of the learning opportunities provided to students”. p.10
The knowledge of EE themselves being experienced teachers should naturally place EE as actors in the QE process. However, the externality of the system limits their QE capacity. The following section sets out to highlight the ways the EE reports feed into external audits and how they affect the overall reputation of HEIs.
‘The handbook for external examiners’ states that the EE report “constitute a crucial body of evidence for both internal quality assurance procedures such as periodic review and for external institutional review” (HEA, 2011, p.25). Furthermore, the response of the institution to this report is also scrutinised by the professional, statutory or regulatory body that might also be responsible for the QA of certain programmes. In addition, the powers of EE have been further strengthened as now external QAA review teams are allowed to have direct contact with EE prior to making their final decision about the quality education of HEIs.
The idea of considering EE as critical friend may derive from the notion that, as Smith and Oliver saw it “the relationship is inherently local, arising from in the personal, social relationships between an External Examiner, the course leader, the HoD and the department” (2004 p12). However, Smith and Oliver refer to the term ‘critical friend’ when describing the role of EE when feedback is given in informal ways. Others point out that as enhancing quality involves learning and as it means taking certain degree of risk it should take place in a non-judgemental setting where trust between correspondents is strongly established (Gordon and Owen, 2009, p.8). By making the EE system increasingly focused on accountability and linking it to audits and ranking processes the opportunity for QE becomes limited.
The role, due to its collegial nature, could easily be viewed as ‘critical’ but ‘friendly. The HEA, in its handbook for external examiners, acknowledges the potential for those involved in the process being indeed confused about the nature of the role:
“It is common for an external examiner to establish a strong, collegiate working relationship with internal staff. In some situations and out of a sense of well-meaning loyalty the external examiner’s report may not give sufficient gravity to a major problem […] or on the other hand it might be that staff dismisses the comments of EE” p.26
The report goes on to warn that if the above becomes an issues the tension will be recognised during the external QAA audit and such issues will lead to negative outcome. This approach to the relationship between EE and academics provides further evidence that the so claimed ‘friendship’ operates under great constrains and that the ‘friends’ every moves are monitored. In light of the recent initiative to increase the accessibility of the report lead to speculations whether this could create a two-layer feedback system one that is officially reported and one that is informal (Hannan and Silver 2004, p.3). While these issues are acknowledged, the QAA fails to address these in a meaningful way.
The language used in the Quality Code further supports the argument that EE are no friends to academics. It states that EE are ‘appointed to scrutinise’ (p.19) and that programmes are ‘subject to scrutiny by EE’ (p.6).
Further issues with the use of language arose due to the multiple purposes the EE’s report. The HEA highlights that “the wording of reports must be carefully chosen in the light of the multiple audiences: staff, students, and senior staff from the HEI and external bodies such as professional regulators” (p.26).
The paper has established a connection between the interpretations of the roles of EE, which are ‘critical friend’ or ‘inspector’, with QA and QE. While the EE system is based on peer-review and therefore could be well-placed to serve QE and EEs have the potential to fulfil the role of a ‘critical friend’, EE system being closely linked to external audits and ranking limits its capacity to take up such position. The latest developments, such as usage of the EE report to increase the transparency of QA in HE further limits its QE potential. While the EEs are viewed as ‘inspectors’ and not as ‘critical friend, their positive contribution to preserving the quality of education in England is widely acknowledged (Cooke 2003 in Lewis, 2012, Smith and Martin 2004). Having the role of EE acknowledged as ‘inspector’ would encourage the academic community and individual EE to realise the importance of training, which aspect of the EE system is currently highly neglected.
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