The benchmark statement is back, and it's still shaped by the market, warns Emma Wisby
Subject benchmark statements, brought in by the Quality Assurance Agency to provide national standards against which subjects should be measured, are back on the agenda.
As the QAA embarks on a five yearly review of these statements, it is crucial that academics understand their significance. Unless properly handled, they could become just marketing tools, focused on the employability of a subject's graduates rather than on its inherent worth.
The standards-based quality assurance framework, introduced by the QAA from 1998, was a significant development. No longer were institutions to be judged against their own aims and objectives. Instead, departments were to be assessed against national standards that set out the learning outcomes students should achieve.
These standards, developed by subject groups in consultation with colleagues, were summarised in benchmark statements. My research, which included consultation with several benchmarking groups, revealed that the protection of "liberal" notions of higher education and academic autonomy were priorities. To this extent ,the statements set out broad, permissive standards.
But the research also revealed that these groups were very aware that they were working in a particular climate, one in which government regulation had combined with competition for fee-paying students. In particular, groups considered how their benchmarks would play to students and how they could be used to market their subjects. In so doing they typically looked to graduate employability and "generic skills". This was important in encouraging the inclusion of such skills in the statements and led some academics to fear the development of a "skills curriculum".
Of course, the impact of the statements within the quality assurance framework would never be tested. Not long after their completion, negotiations between the Government, the sector and the QAA resulted in radical alterations to the framework and the subject benchmarks were downgraded from a regulatory to a developmental tool - provision would not be assessed directly against them.
This did not, though, diminish their influence. Departments continue to use them to argue for particular resources. They also use them, however loosely, to plan their provision. More significant, perhaps, the statements remain a source of information for prospective students.
It is factors such as these that may account for the continued voluntary development of benchmarks by those subjects not initially covered. Demand has been such that the QAA recently introduced the Benchmarking Recognition Scheme to formally recognise these statements.
As the five-year review of statements looms, the QAA has completed a comparison with European subject-related competences, drawn up as part of the Bologna Process. As a result of this comparison, the QAA has called for additional emphasis on employability and transferable skills in the benchmark statements ( Higher Quality , March 2005). Against such a background, it is hard for academics to ensure that statements reflect the inherent value of their subject. But whether new to benchmarking or reviewing a statement, subject communities should avoid reducing their statement to a marketing tool - particularly one that accepts external understandings of the reasons for pursuing higher education.
Emma Wisby is researcher and policy adviser to the director at the Institute of Education, University of London.