Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 22 September, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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External examiner

core definition

An external examiner is a person from another institution or organisation who monitors the assessment process of an institution for fairness and academic standards.

explanatory context

External examiners are normally academics but may also, in some settings, be employers or other professionals not employed in higher education institutions. For example, external examiners for fashion and textile degrees may be practicing cutting-edge employers.


The following currents use or have usedthe external examiner system: UK, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, India, Malawi, Hong Kong and in the technikons in South Africa (Silver, 1993; Warren Piper, 1994).


External examiners thus monitor standards (usually after the event, through evaluation of the student work. In rare cases, they might examine directly as, for example, examining a musical performance as part of the audience).


External examiners are quite different from invigilators who are responsible for supervising examinations as they take place, ensuring the examination is conducted according to the rules.

analytical review

In response to the question ‘What is an external examiner?’ Dublin Institute of Technology (2004) state:

Every course has to have an external examiner who is appointed for a three-year period. The external examiner is normally a senior academic from another institution whose role is to monitor the examinations for fairness and academic standard. The external examiner reads and approves the examination papers, may read some or all of the examination scripts, attends examination board meetings and generally monitors standards and reports formally on his/her findings. 


The University of Keele define an external examiner as:

An examiner who is not a member of the University staff whose primary duty is to ensure that the academic standards of Keele awards are comparable to similar awards in other UK universities, and that examinations and other assessments are fair and conducted in accordance with University procedures and regulations.


University of Wales, Lampeter, (2005) states:

The External Examiner is usually a senior academic at another institution, outside of the University of Wales, who is an acknowledged specialist in the field.

Universities UK (2008, p. 5) explains the British system of external eexaminers:

External examiners: All UK universities have long made use of annetwork of independent and impartial academic advisers, called external examiners. These are
drawn from other institutions, or from areas of relevant professional practice. External examiners report to the Vice-Chancellor of the university on whether the standards set are appropriate, by referring both to their experience of standards in other universities, and to the Academic Infrastructure established by the QAA
(the Code of Practice, Subject Benchmark Statements, the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications, and institutional Programme Specifications) . The aim is to ensure that the threshold standards of student performance are comparable with those of students following similar courses in other UK universities.
External examiners provide authoritative advice on the extent to which the processes for assessment, examination and the determination of awards are sound and have been applied fairly. External examiner reports have significant status within the university. They are directed to the Vice-Chancellor and are considered at, and used by, the department and university in internal quality assurance committees.

University of Cambridge (2004) sets the external examiner in the wider higher education context:

In the UK's system of higher education, individual Universities and other institutions are responsible for the standards and quality of the education they provide and the degrees they offer. As part of a national system, all institutions use External Examiners to assist them in monitoring the standards of all of their degrees except those granted on an honorary basis.

External Examiners are so called because they act as Examiners (alongside other examiners appointed from among the staff of the University) and, because they are from outside the University, can provide an objective view to the nature and standards of the assessment of students. They are appointed to act as independent and impartial advisors providing informed comment on the standards set and student achievement in relation to those standards and to standards of comparable institutions elsewhere.

The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (undated) states:

External examiner: An independent expert appointed by an institution to comment on student achievement in relation to established academic standards and to look at approaches to assessment.

External examining: The process by which one or more independent experts (external examiners) comment(s) on student achievement in relation to established academic standards and on the higher education provider's approach to assessment, thus helping to ensure consistent standards and fair assessment procedures across the UK.

University of Toronto, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology (2007) defines external examiner of the doctoral thesis thus:

Definition of External Examiner: The External Examiner/Appraiser of a thesis should be external to the University as well as to the teaching hospitals affiliated with the University and their research institutes. He or she should be a recognized expert on the subject of the thesis and, normally, will be an Associate or Full Professor at his or her home institution. In nominating someone as the External Examiner/Appraiser for a thesis, the supervisor certifies to the Graduate Coordinator that the nominee has an arm’s-length relation both with the candidate and with the Supervisor. (Usually, this will exclude anyone who, in the past six years, (i) has been a departmental colleague of the candidate or of the Supervisor, (ii) has been a student or teacher of the candidate or Supervisor, or (iii) has collaborated on a research project with the candidate or Supervisor).

associated issues

Role of the external examiner

Not all institutions use external examiners in exactly the same way. The role (from Bristol) specified below is indicative of the role that external examiners play in ensuring comparable standards and appropriate practice in assessment of students. In some institutions external examiners also act as ‘critical friends’ to a greater degree than implied in the outline from Bristol, below. For example they, often unofficially, comment on the appropriateness/up-to-dateness of curricula, alternative assessment techniques and burden of assessment.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK states in its Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 4, External examining (August 2004) :

This section of the Code assumes, however, that all institutions will use external examiners to help them monitor the academic standards of their awards, except those granted on an honorary basis. External examiners act as independent and impartial advisers providing institutions with informed comment on the standards set and student achievement in relation to those standards. External examining is therefore an integral and essential part of institutional quality assurance. It is the responsibility of each institution to establish criteria and guidance for external examining that enable its academic standards to be described and maintained....The main purposes of external examining are: to verify that academic standards are appropriate for the award or part thereof which the external examiner has been appointed to examine; to help institutions to assure and maintain academic standards across higher education awards; to help institutions to ensure that their assessment processes are sound, fairly operated and in line with the institution's policies and regulations.

University of Bristol (2005) specified the external examiner role as follows:

Role of the External Examiner in assessing student work

1. The external examiner has the right to see all degree examination scripts and any other work that contributes to the degree result.

2. The external examiner should act as a moderator of the decisions of internal examiners. Student work will be marked in the first instance by internal examiners and some or all of the work should be made available to the external examiner for moderation. The external examiner should normally be asked to review the following:

·                    Fail marks

·                    First class marks and/or Masters distinctions

·                    Third class marks

·                    A sample of work from both lower and upper second class divisions

·                    Borderline marks and whether boundaries between classifications are set appropriately

It is good practice to involve the external examiner in decisions that will result in the student being required to leave the University.

The external examiner should negotiate with the department on the amount of student work they will receive.

3. The external examiner may also act as an adjudicator where there are disagreements between the internal examiners, although internal examiners should try to agree marks where possible and only send irreconcilable conflicts to the external examiner.

4. Exceptionally the external examiner may act as the second marker, where there is insufficient internal expertise for full internal moderation and where this has been agreed with the external examiner.

5. External examiners should be asked to correct and subsequently approve all examination papers contributing to the final degree result. It is also good practice to consult the external examiner on other forms of assessment contributing to final degree results while in draft form e.g. coursework essay titles or project outlines.

6. Where a viva voce examination is to be held for a proportion, but only a proportion, of the candidates, the principles for the selection of candidates should be agreed with the external examiner. Such an examination should normally be conducted by an external examiner who may be assisted by one or more internal examiners.

7. The external examiner may comment and advise on matters of course curriculum, balance and structure, in so far as these are revealed by the assessment process.

8. Examination papers, scripts and any other relevant assessment material contributing to the degree classification or overall result, should normally be kept until at least one year after the relevant students have graduated from the University. This may not always be possible in respect of coursework returned to students.

Improper Practice

9. If an internal or external examiner considers that a candidate has engaged in an improper assessment practice, such as plagiarism or another form of cheating, the examiner should, as soon as possible, report the circumstances to the Chairman of the appropriate Board of Examiners, who should consult the University's Ordinances and Regulations.

This role specification by the University of Bristol appears to be no longer on their site but they do outline the function of external examiners as follows:

The external examining system is one of the most important ways of ensuring that the programmes we are running are academically sound, that the students are acquiring the correct level of teaching and that programmes and that results are comparable to those in similar higher education institutions. At least one external examiner is appointed for each subject or group of subjects forming part of a degree programme.

External examiners have the opportunity to see and comment on all examination papers, all degree examination scripts and any other work that contributes to the degree result. Departments often negotiate with the external examiner exactly how much work they will look at. External examiners sit on faculty or departmental exam boards and their views are taken extremely seriously.

At the end of an academic year the external examiner produces a report on the programme(s) for which they are examiner. These reports are scrutinised both at department level and centrally and departments are expected to respond to their external examiner explaining how points raised are to be addressed. The external examiners' reports are routinely circulated to the Head of Department and other relevant departmental contacts. Students may request a copy of any report (University of Bristol, 2009)


The University of Cambridge (2004) also elaborates the role as follows:

The University of Cambridge views the comments and reports of External Examiners as a vital and integral part of its quality assurance procedures. It seeks to employ senior and experienced academic or professional staff who are not otherwise employed by the University or the Colleges and who do not teach any part of the course for the examination concerned.

The main duties of an External Examiner are: to verify that standards are appropriate for the course(s) concerned; to assist institutions in the comparison of academic standards across higher education degrees and parts of degrees; and to ensure that their assessment processes are fair and are fairly operated and are in line with the institution's regulations. The University provides additional guidance to External Examiners in the undertaking of their duties.

For undergraduate examinations, at least one -- and often two or more -- External Examiners are appointed for nearly all Parts of Triposes. (In the very few cases where External Examiners are not appointed, the standards of the examination are deemed to be appropriate through the use of External Examiners for courses in a later Part of the same Tripos.) All postgraduate examinations are overseen by at least one External Examiner.

For the purposes of public summary reports (as found on this website), External Examiners are provided with a summary report form to complete: where more than one External Examiner is used, the report represents a digest of comments from all External Examiners concerned and is compiled by the University on their behalf, and with their agreement.

The University of Cambridge does not necessarily endorse the views or findings of the reports of its External Examiners and is not responsible for the accuracy or otherwise of their content. It has also reserved the right to omit or amend any part of any External Examiner’s comments which in its opinion are potentially false, misleading, defamatory, unfairly damaging to the University, in contravention of the Data Protection Act 1998, or otherwise offensive or in breach of any legal requirements or rights of third parties.

related areas

See also



Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), 2004, Handbook for Students of the Department of Social Sciences (September 2004) student_resources/2004-student-handbook-.doc, not at this address 7 March 2011.

Keele University, Academic Regulations and Guidance for Students and Staff, Annexes Section D: Glossary of Terms  updated: 27 August, 2002, not at this address 7 March 2011.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 7 January 2017, not available 20 June 2019.

Silver, H., 1993, External Examiners: changing roles. A study of examination boards, external examiners, and views of the future, London: Council for National Academic Awards.

Universities UK, 2008, Quality and standards in UK universities: A guide to how the system works, London, Universities UK.

Univeristy of Bristol, 2005, Teaching Support Unit, Guidelines for External Examiners Approved by Education Committee, 9 February, 2005,, , not at this address 7 March 2011.up

Univeristy of Bristol, 2005, Education Support Unit, External Examiners for taught programmes, available at updated 12 November 2009 by the Education Support Unit, accessed 7 March 2011, not available 15 July 2012.

University of Cambridge, 2004, What is an External Examiner?,, updated 7 October 2004, not at this address 7 March 2011, page not available 3 January 2017.

University of Toronto, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 2007, Planning the PhD Oral Defenses, available at, accessed 15 July 2012, page not available 3 January 2017.

University of Wales, Lampeter, 2005, Department of Welsh,, Last Updated: 23 February, 2005, not at this address 7 March 2011.

Warren Piper, D., 1994, Are Professors Professional? The organisation of university Examinations. London: Jessica Kingsley.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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