Nul points for agency standard

The gulf between the QAA benchmark on study time and the hours students put in raises questions about its judgement

May 16, 2013

Every year it’s the same story: we build ourselves up, brag about our supposed excellence and express confidence that our past glories will guarantee us success. But once under the spotlight the facade crumbles away to reveal that these days we are sadly lacking in quality and endeavour. And instead of admitting our shortcomings, we will probably blame others (maybe Moldova or another part of Eastern Europe).

Unfortunately, I’m not talking about the Eurovision Song Contest (except for the bit about Moldova) but rather the regular merry-go-round where yet another report suggests that English degrees are not all they are cracked up to be.

This time around, the Higher Education Policy Institute gives if not “nul points” then an F grade to our cocksure anthems to excellence.

Undergraduates on average are studying for just three-quarters of the time the sector’s own watchdog believes they should for their degrees

Its comprehensive survey of students’ academic experience - which for the first time considers the cohort paying fees of up to £9,000 a year - suggests that undergraduates on average are studying for just three- quarters of the time the sector’s own watchdog believes they should for their degrees.

“In our previous report we commented that study at an English university was more like a part-time than a full-time job, and so it has proved again,” the document pronounces.

There is also huge variation in the amount of effort that different universities require from their students, whatever the subject. In engineering and technology, the average total study time per week ranges from 20.6 to 47.2 hours; in history and philosophy, from 19.3 to 44.6 hours; and in the creative arts and design, from 22.9 to 43 hours.

The usual scapegoats blamed for “part-time” degrees - as chosen by the media - are “lazy” lecturers too interested in research to teach. But this is far from the truth. For starters, the Hepi figures look at “total study time”, including the private hours put in by students themselves. There are also questions about why the Quality Assurance Agency’s benchmark of 1,200 hours of study time a syear needed to gain a UK degree is so out of touch with the 900 hours put in on average.

Perhaps it is simply down to students failing to work hard enough. But the QAA’s role in degree standards has been questioned before. Four years ago, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee found that the UK’s system for safeguarding academic standards was “unfit”, called for the abolition or recasting of the QAA and accused vice-chancellors of “defensive complacency” on the issue. Since then, the watchdog’s systems of inspection and the framework under which it operates have undergone lots of tinkering - but the lack of substantive change in the QAA’s legal basis (it is “owned” by the sector) means that meaningful reform remains a pipe dream.

The latest Hepi report may not change that (like the UK’s Eurovision flops, flaps over standards are quickly forgotten). But it has also emerged this week that the University of Southampton has become the first institution to successfully appeal against the findings of a QAA institutional review. This will only provide fuel for those critics who believe that the QAA either lacks authority or is more interested in box- ticking than in protecting quantifiable standards. And taken with Hepi’s findings, it is unlikely to be long before the standard of UK degrees is the subject of another major inquiry.

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