Category Archives: Academic Life

Why I (along with others) am resigning as an External Examiner – an Open (and Rambling) Letter

To whom it may concern,

I am resigning from my external examining posts, and urge you to do the same. I’m not alone, and in illustrious company (see below), but we each have our own reasons (and regrets, I’m sure) for choosing to step down from one of the most pleasurable/painful duties an academic faces in their ‘famine and feast’ vocation. After all, who in their right mind would take on extra work during the busiest time of the year?

Why we are resigning - Guardian Letters
Why we are resigning – Guardian Letters

With ever more complex assessments, developed to innovate, teach work-place skills, and design out plagiarism, amidst shrinking deadlines caused by ever quicker turnarounds needed by academic boards, which seem (and mostly are) earlier and earlier – not to mention the “pre” and “pre pre” boards intended to polish up performance (and iron out problems?) prior to the arrival of the externals – which all serve to increase the burden of assessment, why would we add to that work load? And yet many of us have. And willingly so. 

You see we feel a duty and a benefit from our visits to the hampered campuses of fatigued colleagues. If nothing else, it helps us to not feel alone; to know that others share this strange and unique job of creating, measuring and peddling knowledge. At the best of times, I’ve seen true genius, dedication and amazing creativity on foreign soil. Some of my most successful strategies and teaching have been inspired by the work I’ve seen, and not only that of fellow lecturers; I have had to regularly readjust what I considered fair and reasonable to expect from students too, and always upwards. So, both I and my own institution have benefitted greatly by this cross-pollination.

In return, I feel I’ve been able to share my own experience, helping to make awards and the student experience that much better. And yet, one of the hardest lessons I learned from many years as an external examiner is that “It isn’t your job to tell colleagues how to do their job, just to make sure they did it!” It’s an incredibly diplomatic role, to just make sure that academics and administrators have followed their own rules and regulations. It can be hard sometimes, especially when your personal opinion might be that corners are being cut, procedures ignored or are actually counter-productive, given learning is our goal. The associated administrative load associated with measuring the measurement of success can be quite oppressive. Necessary, but oppressive. Just one of the increasing burdens. However, it is hard not to feel that some of these tasks take away from the true purpose of lecturing. 

In the worst (and thankfully rarest) cases, I’ve seen academic misconduct uncovered in or before boards. The sheer amount of sample course works, exams and projects that externals are expected to review in a day (or often a morning) is quite staggering. I’m reminded of Sir Humphrey’s Red Box strategy of burying unfortunate material in piles of papers.

Sir Humphrey hides bad news in Red Box No.5
Sir Humphrey hides bad news in Red Box No.5

Not that I believe lecturers are condoning plagiarism, etc, but it’s easy to miss academic misconduct when the work load is heavy, and deadlines are tight. When such activities are uncovered, it is embarrassing for everyone, because it calls into doubt the whole QA process. However, even such ‘bloody noses’ can be a great learning opportunity, because they help to raise academic debate on assessment in the 21st century.

So, being an external examiner has its ups and downs, but the institutional benefit far outweighs the small fees that externals receive – typically £200-£750 per annum depending on institution – for visiting campuses several times a year, as well as reviewing module packs, online materials, and occasional (re)validation documents. It should be noted that while academic staff are often being ‘paid twice’ for such activities, the fee never covers the real term costs for externals’ time but, as mentioned before, the tangible benefits to both host and lending universities – from cross-pollination of best practice and innovation in learning, teaching and assessment, as well as networking – more than make up for the illusion of externals unfairly benefitting from ‘double pay’.

I have definitely been amply rewarded for my time as external examiner, in a number of excellent schools across the country, least of all financially. I (and I’d like to think those I’ve worked with) have become a much better educator as a result. So, when I saw the instruction from UCU that members should resign from existing external examining posts, working out our notice (so as to not completely drop the ball), and not taking up new invitations, I was initially quite dismayed. Great friendships have been forged with esteemed colleagues in all of the universities I have worked with, in an external capacity, and I was concerned about the potential impact on my professional career. Leaving lecturers in the lurch is never going to be a comfortable thing to consider, and the chance that a sudden blot on a twenty year career as external could mean I might never again be approved for an examining post, played heavy on my heart.

I am aware that, for some, this was an unacceptable and surprising request from UCU, and in at least one case this has meant one fewer member as a result. However, when I sat down to think about it, my initial response seemed out of place. This is exactly the kind of action that can signal our resolve in this current strike. It is commensurate, communicates how fervently we support the union, and shows that we are prepared to personally sacrifice more than just wages, to make it clear that we mean business. We cannot afford the damp squib that was the pensions strike a few years ago, which just fizzled out. This is far more serious, because it is about the step-by-step destruction of the profession. Zero hour contracts, performance related pay by stealth (it’s coming, mark my words, and the first thin end of the wedge is already here, as we prepare for the TEF), and the systematic replacement of expensive senior staff with cheaper starting out lecturers, often on casual contracts, through ‘restructuring’, which notionally removes mid-management bloat, but actually just pushes unnecessary admin onto lower pay grades. 

In the long term, it’s hard to know just how much I have sacrificed by resigning: the loss of contact with colleagues and friends; the immeasurable educational effects of cross-fertilisation; and the professional and financial benefits. However, that is nothing to what the next generation of lecturers, those who will replace me in a decade or so, will have to face if we don’t make a stand now. It was never about a simple, selfish pay rise. Like with the Junior Doctors, it is about preventing the casual undermining of a whole profession. 

Dr. Mike Reddy