Get out your module maps, it's time for a light-touch look at those underlying concepts and learning outcomes

January 31, 2003

The audit culture in universities diverts academics from their calling - researching and teaching - and makes them into paper-shuffling, jargon-spouting bureaucrats, says Todd Landman

In March 2001, Essex University's department of government underwent subject review, popularly known as the "heavy touch" of the quality assurance process.

We met as a department every week for nearly 18 months to prepare for the visit. We divided ourselves into aspect groups and prepared a base room of information on our teaching and learning activities that was so vast that we needed "meta" documentation to guide the team that eventually carried out the visit.

This story must be familiar across all departments in the UK that have experienced the heavy touch. Post quality assurance, we were promised "never again", or at least that the next time would be "lighter". Indeed, the heavy touch has been discarded in favour of the light touch, which purports to make more of the documentation and less of the visit (although the visits may be more frequent).

Departments may welcome the light touch because it seems to provide a less burdensome and less bureaucratic procedure for maintaining and ensuring standards of excellence, while academic staff can dedicate their time to developing the content of their courses and pursuing their research.

However, the light touch has produced somewhat of a permanent revolution that has had important repercussions on the distribution of academic time dedicated to teaching, research and administration.

In response to this "quality revolution" in higher education, academics now face a new set of demands related to the quality of the teaching and learning process that stretch far beyond previous preparations for periodic "spot checks". To be ready for the light touch, departments are required to produce "programme specifications", "module maps" and "annual degree-scheme monitoring reports", as well as prepare for "periodic degree-scheme reviews" and randomly announced "institutional audits".

Preparation of materials for these quality events has added to the academic's workload. In addition to running courses and examinations, advising and supervising students, chairing committees, recruiting students, publishing research (which has its own quality process) and other duties, quality assurance takes up most of the 20 to 30 per cent of our time spent on administration. Curiously, administrative tasks such as these did not appear in the categories of the latest "transparency review", which was meant to assess the distribution of academic time between teaching and research.

One of our tasks is preparing separate "programme specifications" for each degree scheme offered by the department. Having prepared a programme specification for our new BA in social sciences, I was struck by three things: the language that I had to adopt, the self-referential character of the document and its high level of generality. I started using phrases such as "the student will learn concepts and terminology relevant to the discipline", "the concepts and terminology will be delivered through a variety of learning platforms, including lectures, seminars and reading materials", and "the student's knowledge of the concepts and terminology will be assessed through class discussion, exercises, written essays and examinations".

Apart from being painfully obvious that concepts and terminology are taught through lectures, seminars and readings, and then assessed through class discussion, exercises, written essays and examinations, the language is so general that it can be applied to almost any discipline. Indeed, most of the substantive content and structure of the programme specification for the BA in social sciences came from a literature degree. It seems that the programme specification risks becoming an oxymoron because it specifies nothing in particular and could be applied to any course of study.

Moreover, the language as set out in the Quality Assurance Agency handbook is bland, unexciting and filled with complicated internal referencing codes linking knowledge (A1-An), intellectual and cognitive skills (B1-Bn), practical skills (C1-Cn), and key skills (D1-Dn), even though its purpose is to provide an overview of degree schemes for prospective students, parents and employers. A simple comparison of programme specifications for a degree scheme in computer science and one in law is illustrative. Both make specific points about the content acquired on the different courses, but they offer similar non-specific and self-referential statements with regard to learning and assessment methods.

On learning methods, compare these specs:

"Lectures are the principal method of delivery for the concepts and principles involved in A1-A6. Students are also directed to reading from textbooks, academic papers and material available online."

"A1-A5 are acquired through lectures; large group interactive classes which encourage dialogue between the students and teacher and between the students inter se; and tutorials that allow students to work in small groups and for dynamic interaction. Students are expected to undertake independent research through directed reading to consolidate and develop what they have learned in class."

On assessment methods, compare the following:

"Testing of the knowledge base for A1-A5 is through unseen examinations and continuous coursework. Continuous coursework consists of essays, problem analysis, oral presentations and group projects."

"Achievement of knowledge outcomes is assessed primarily through unseen closed-book examinations, and also through marked coursework. An assessment of the understanding of underlying concepts and principles forms part of the overall assessment of the final-year project report and oral presentation."

Can you tell which applies to which subject? (I switched them halfway through.) These documents are then supplemented with "module maps", which comprise a detailed grid that shows how each component of the degree scheme achieves the desired "learning outcome" across the different categories of the programme specification (that is to say, A1-n-D1-n).

Now, imagine a university with between 15 and 35 departments offering ten undergraduate and 15 graduate degree schemes, all of which need separate programme specifications. That makes between 375 and 875 programme specifications. Imagine further that each programme specification takes at least eight hours to write (so we are talking between 3,000 hours and 7,000 hours of work). It then requires approval through the university hierarchy (usually involving the head of department, a committee, a dean and a school). Clearly, the costs of adopting this approach are huge. The gains appear limited because there is much duplication of language within and across the different disciplines, while the specific content occupies a small proportion of the overall programme specification.

Having spent four years recruiting students, it seems to me that they are interested in four important questions: what will I learn; how will I learn it; how am I examined; and what career prospects are there for me? It is not rocket science to provide answers to these questions in a manner that is consistent and transparent to students, parents and prospective employers. In contrast, academics are being asked to make their offerings appear consistent and uniform across disciplines but are losing transparency in the process and sacrificing the very intellectual excitement associated with learning at university level.

As part of an introductory politics course that I taught in the US, students were required to read Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , in which he warns of the excesses of economic rationality and how they threaten to produce an "iron cage" in which we all toil. In similar fashion, anthropologists Chris Shore and Susan Wright write in a 1999 article in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute that the "audit culture" that has sprung from 1980s neo-liberalism represents a "new form of coercive and authoritarian governmentality".

Ironically, the adoption of the neo-liberal model for modern capitalist economies has created burdensome bureaucratic machinery akin to Weber's iron cage. Among academics, there is some resistance to (but mostly grudging acceptance of) preparation of "quality" materials. But our intellectual health, academic freedom and educational autonomy are at risk as we apply a "cookie-cutter" approach to higher education. We should heed Weber's warning and concentrate on the true content of our endeavours and not the process of its delivery.

Todd Landman is a lecturer in the department of government at the University of Essex, which is one of the first universities to undergo a light-touch quality assurance audit.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments