a tiny tantrum about rules … the case of ‘currency’ for the thesis examiner

Every now and then I get vexed by rules, particularly those that are associated with risk management and quality assurance. This is one of those existential moments.

When I am asked by a UK university to be a thesis examiner, I have to produce a cv of my publications and current research. To date no one in other places has asked for this. Now I generally keep my university webpage pretty up to date so it isn’t hard to cut and paste bits into something that will suffice for the purposes of getting ‘approved’. In some universities supervisors or an admin staff member goes to my webpage and cuts and pastes the relevant information into the required form, rather than make additional work for me by asking for information that is already freely available. To those supervisors and administrators, a big thankyou – this is an eminently sensible way to proceed, look for the information first and then ask if it’s not available, rather than ask me as a blanket procedure.

I understand that the requirement for supervisor cvs was introduced across most universities in the UK as part of risk management/quality assurance processes – it is a university’s ways of making sure that PhD examiners are actually qualified to do the job. This is fine, and I don’t want to argue with that, not really, well only a bit. Universities do absolutely need to make sure that a PhD examiner knows what they are talking about and looking for – they aren’t chosen solely on the basis that they are one of the supervisor’s best mates called in to do them a favour. (Clearly there must be sufficient cases somewhere, some set of evidence, showing that supervisors can’t be trusted to suggest people that are the best they can think of for the job. )

But asking for an examiner’s cv is not just about avoiding cronyism (and I doubt that it does that) and ensuring expertise. It’s also about currency. Currency of research and publication. That is, examiners have to show that they are actively researching and publishing at the time that they are nominated to be an examiner. This sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? But what does currency mean? What is at issue for me is what counts as now, what is considered to be current. How is currency interpreted?

There are some circumstances in which potential examiners may not have right-up-to-the-minute publications and research. Here’s three:

(1) when someone has had an illness serious enough to take them out of action for a year or two. They’ve read and kept up with the field, but haven’t actively been doing research, teaching or writing because they just haven’t been able to. Now they are better, they are back on deck and have resumed writing, teaching, supervision and research activities, but have yet to land a funded project or see a new publication in print.

(2) when someone has had timeout doing a very hefty administrative job but is now back doing academic work. Their job has kept them in research conversations and they know the field and its trends very well, they just haven’t made a personal contribution for a while.

(3) when someone is a very senior figure in the field, an internationally recognized scholar, and is semi-retired, but is still doing some supervision, teaching and mentoring work. They are up to date with the field, but are no longer writing regularly or engaged in funded research.

If the proposed examiner is one of these kinds of people, their cv could be interpreted as not being current. So then a supervisor or an administrator in a hypothetically rule-bound university would have to make a special case. It’s not that these people can’t be PhD examiners, but rather than a special case needs to be made for them.

So – bear with this hypothetical example – someone then has go off to the proposed thesis examiner and ask them for details that can be used to make the case for exception. Now this is just plain downright difficult for the person doing the asking … I’m sorry I know you had a near death experience over the last year but my university requires details of it in order for you to be an examiner… or I know you’ve been chairing a research organisation for the last three years but the university is asking for evidence that you are up to date with the field…. or I’m sorry I know you are a really important person in the field and you have written key texts and done foundational research and I know that you hardly ever examine theses and we’re so grateful you’ve agreed to do this one but the university just needs to know why you haven’t got any publications or funded research in the last year or two… Well, who’d be surprised if, in these kinds of cases or similar, the potential examiner just decided this was an invasion of privacy and/or just downright insulting and pulled out? The loser there would be the doctoral researcher, not the university.

The notion of currency is the problem here. Currency can be interpreted to mean a list of this year/last year’s publications and funded projects. In really-rule-bound UK institutions – if there are any of course and I’m only speaking hypothetically – currency doesn’t mean, say, the REF period of five six or seven years, it means now, in the last twelve months.

In my view this kind of literal and blanket interpretation would be foolish. There are circumstances where track record and relatively recent active publication and funded research – say in the last three or four years or indeed within the REF period in the UK – ought to be enough. If this needs to be explained in some way, there might be a simple tick-box possibility for predictable exceptions, such as those suggested above, rather than the expectation that there will be a separate stand-alone case-by-case justification made.

The actual and not hypothetical problem is about how literally rules are seen, as well as whether risk management and quality assurance processes take any account of potential known exceptions. Now this is not the only possible example of rules dominating common sense, and it is one of a number that is on my mind this week. What rules are bugging you this week?

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in evidence, examiner, quality, risk management, rules and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to a tiny tantrum about rules … the case of ‘currency’ for the thesis examiner

  1. I am always bugged when universities require me to produce my passport before examining a research degree. It serves no useful purpose whatever, but is justified by HR departments as ‘best practice’.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Is this hypothetical griping about bureaucracy or are there concrete examples of times that people have been refused the role of external examiner on the basis of a cv? I’ve only been an external examiner a handful of times in the UK and elsewhere, but I’ve always had the sense the UK habit of asking for a cv is a mere formality to add paperwork to the record. HR are certainly unqualified to judge anyone’s academic record and the choice of external has presumable already been vetted by supervisor and head of group/department whatever. Its right that the research department/group should have some sense of consensus as to the level of expertise they expect in externals, but it should be pretty flexible.

    One bureaucratic example of this sort of thing I experienced was an Israeli university where external examiners had to have the title “senior lecturer” or above. CV or expertise weren’t important just the title. Far from ideal.

  3. Helen Wilson says:

    You haven’t mentioned the other obvious possibility – maternity leave. Two of those certainly put a dent in my currency, but I’ve done 2 PhD external jobs in the year since I came back the second time, and have never yet been asked for my CV in this context.

    • pat thomson says:

      That’s interesting. I was going to do a separate post about family and caring issues but maybe not now you’ve raised it here… Do you think they didn’t ask for cv because universities know about maternity leave and they don’t know about these others, or you were dealing withnon rule bound universities, or some else made the case about maternity leave without involving you…

  4. SheriO says:

    An eminent UK professor emeritus of Art History at Oxford University, a world renowned expert on Da Vinci, may not be eligible to become an examiner under these rules. He is highly sought after. He has an agent, a web site, and a busy travel itinerary.
    Yet, with scholarship bred into his bones, he says on his website..

    “I have over the years done a great deal of external examining, and will take on no more commitments, except for doctoral theses for which no other appropriate examiner is available.”

    He embodies his field. He traffics in his knowledge. What is the value of a lifetime of scholarship? What is the value of a great deal of external examining? What is the value of a commitment to scholarship that transcends a public persona, a busy schedule and a thriving business?

    I wonder about the rules for Canadian examiners. It seems like in the UK, the pendulum has swung for very little oversight of examiner selection to stringent rules. With postings like this, the pendulum is bound to swing back allow for caveats and exceptions.

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