Academic Services

Two external examiners

Guidance for Schools and Colleges on using two External Examiners for postgraduate research assessment.

The Postgraduate Assessment Regulations for Research Degrees set out eligibility for the appointment of and the number of examiners for PGR assessment. The standard arrangements for assessing postgraduate research degrees are that each student is assessed by at least one External Examiner and one Internal Examiner. In nominating examiners, it is important to avoid any potential conflict of interest. In no circumstances should anyone with a personal interest, for example a personal, family or legal relationship with a student being assessed, be appointed as an examiner.

The regulations state that

“When the student is or has been a member of staff of the University during their research degree there must be two External Examiners and one Internal Examiner. ‘Member of staff’ will be defined by the student’s School with approval by College. There is no requirement for students who are or have only been tutors or demonstrators (or have undertaken similar roles) to have two external examiners.”

University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Assessment Regulations for Research Degrees

Defining students as members of staff

A member of staff is someone with a contract of employment with the University of Edinburgh. However, some students may have contracts of employment, for example guaranteed hours contracts but will not be considered as a “member of staff” in terms of the academic regulations. Students who are employed through external funding will not normally be considered as members of University staff, for example Marie Sklodowska-Curie studentships.

Avoiding conflict of interest

Students are employed by the University in a variety of roles. They make a valuable contribution in Schools, Colleges and Professional Services. Students may be employed by the University on guaranteed hours contracts during their period of study, for example as tutors or demonstrators. As noted above, students working in these roles will not normally be considered as “members of staff” in terms of the academic regulations. However, there may be situations where students have been working closely with academic staff in a subject area, which may present a greater risk of potential conflict of interest, or perceived conflict of interest. In these cases, it may be appropriate to add an extra layer of externality to the assessment process by using two External Examiners and one Internal Examiner. This minimises the chance that the student could be perceived to have experienced any benefit or detriment as a result of their working relationship with staff members.

Examples of second External Examiner appointments

Schools should use their judgment on whether a second external examiner should be nominated on a case by case basis and consider where it is in the student’s best interest to appoint a second External Examiner. In a doubtful case it is better to err on the side of caution to ensure the robustness of the process and outcome. Colleges have responsibility for appointing examiners based on a case presented by a School.

Some examples of when a second External Examiner has been appointed.

  1. The student began a Teaching Fellow appointment before the Notice of Intention to Submit was lodged. The role was dependent on a successful outcome in the viva and the student would be working within the same area as the supervisors and Internal Examiner. Therefore, there was a perceived conflict (as the student would be considered ‘staff’ within this department).
  2. The student had an ongoing involvement with a project led by a School colleague which at one point had been a paid commitment. The student had also had various interruptions and extensions, so had been around the School for a while.
  3. The student had been doing various jobs for the University since they started, including running peer support for undergraduate students in the School and as a guaranteed hours tutor on a number of undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses. The student had a guaranteed hours contract rather than a staff contract, but had done substantial work with the School and University. The supervisor knew this student technically wasn’t a staff member under the academic regulations, but felt they were close enough to staff for there to be risk of a perceived conflict of interest.
  4. The student held a research assistant role in a research project funded by the Principal's Teaching Award Scheme, and worked with Teaching Coordinators. This was a part-time, fixed-term guaranteed hours post for 280 hours over a two-year contract. The Postgraduate Director considered this was a borderline case, so decided to err on the safe side to avoid any risk of a perceived conflict of interest.