Archive for external examiners

When is an External Examiner not an External Examiner?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 21, 2020 by telescoper

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.