When is an External Examiner not an External Examiner?

The other day I was at a training session about Finance and Governance for new Heads of Department at Maynooth University. During the course of that there was a briefing about payroll arrangements, tax rules and so on. Among the pieces of information I learned is that all external examiners at the University have to receive their payment through the payroll system, which means that, as well as other bureaucracy, they will have to get a PPS number (the equivalent of a National Insurance number) before they start work. This goes for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, including individual PhD examinations.

The payment for an external examiner is really just a token honorarium – nobody becomes an external examiner for the money! – so this imposes quite a big administrative overheard but the Revenue people are adamant that it has to be done so we’ll have to cope.

There is another difficulty here. Technically any payment you get to compensate for travel to your `normal place of work’ is not tax-free. If you’re employed even for just one day as an external examiner at University X then University X is your employer and its campus is your normal place of work for that employment. Your travel expenses should therefore be taxed. I understand that in Ireland an exemption has been negotiated for this so in practice this issue won’t arise, unless (as is possible) the authorities change their mind about the exemption.

Aside from the additional paperwork and muddle there’s an important conceptual issue here. The new arrangements mean that an external examiner (who is meant to be independent) will now be an employee of the University. In effect, the external examiner is no longer external. This makes me very uncomfortable.

I was already a bit uncomfortable about the system of external examiners anyway, as they are usually appointed on the recommendation of a department based on personal knowledge. In principle a department could recommend someone they know would be a soft touch or who owes them a favour in some way. I think such abuses of the system are probably rather rare, and most externals do the job as objectively and as diligently as they can.  I have  always tried to be fair when called upon to do such tasks, although it’s not for me to say whether I have always succeeded.

The point I want to make, however, is that It is important not only that the system is fair and rigorous but that it be seen to be fair and I don’t think that is the case the way things are currently run either in Ireland or in the United Kingdom. For the reasons described above the present arrangements certainly do not look incorruptible.

I’ve always felt that a better system could be created by setting up an agency of some sort, completely independent of the universities that would maintain a panel of external examiners who would be paid by the agency rather than by higher education institutes themselves . The agency will also pay travel expenses. When a university needs an external examiner, it would make a request and be allocated one with the necessary expertise in such a way that no personal conflicts of interest could arise.

This would be quite a simple thing to set up in the United Kingdom, as UK universities usually have externals from other UK universities. It would be more difficult in Ireland, however, because the university sector is quite small and many of our external examiners are overseas (especially from the UK). I don’t see this as an insuperable problem, however, as the body overseeing the appointments should be set up in such a way as to deal with the administration.

I think the system I advocate would solve the issues I have raised, principally by assuring that external examiners are actually external.

Comments are, of course, welcome through the box below.

 

 

 

3 Responses to “When is an External Examiner not an External Examiner?”

  1. Should they be paid at all? Isn’t it part of what one does as a scientist, such as refereeing papers? Travel costs and so on, OK, but people who are external examiners are usually quite comfortably employed and the paperwork involved, at their hourly wage, if deducted from the fee would probably result in an overall loss in financial terms.

    There is probably a lot of variation here, as well as in the cases whether editors are paid and if so how much, external colloquium speakers, invited speakers at conferences, and so on.

  2. Dave Carter Says:

    Surely this has been true in the UK for quite some time. So every University for which I did any kind of exam has been a separate employer, and has needed a separate entry as an employer when I fill in my tax form.

    On a slightly related subject, I understand from STFC that reimbursement of travel costs now has to be done through payroll. So even if you only get your train fare to Swindon reimbursed, you need a separate entry on your tax form.

    And if you get paid for a foreign PhD exam, that has to go in the foreign income section.

    • I think that’s right about the UK. Not sure when it started but I had to include several ’employments’ on my tax return sometimes. It’s new in Ireland though.

      In Ireland there’s a level of foreign earnings below which you don’t have to declare. It’s well above what you get as an external examiner.

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