A national measure for minds

May 3, 1996

Should higher education have a national curriculum? Anthony Woollard it should..

In at least half the courses for a degree we need a core curriculum and national examinations." You might expect such words perhaps from an ex- mandarin like me. But they are not mine. They are those of a practising academic - Colin Lawson of the University of Bath ("Grade inflation: true or false?", THES, April 19).

In my experience he is not alone. As Lawson makes clear, there is a crisis of accountability in higher education, just as there was in our schools in the 1980s. If education at any level is important to the mass of the populace then they have a right to know what they are getting and to be assured that it will not differ in essence according to accidents of time or place. That was not the case in schools before the national curriculum was introduced in 1988. And it is not the case now in our expanded and diverse higher education system, in which reinventing the wheel seems to have become a virtue and opens the door wide to questioning the content and standards of degrees.

Why then are many academics horrified by the idea of a national curriculum for higher education? I can think of three main arguments: academic autonomy, the inherent open-endedness of higher education and bureaucracy. Until we have looked at these, we cannot begin to discern what this animal might look like and whether it is really such a monster as its opponents fear.

Academic autonomy is the biggest shibboleth. We should defend to the death the right of academics, with their students, to explore ideas without fear or favour. But does that imply the right to teach and assess absolutely what and how one likes (at public expense)? Surely autonomy can be exercised within a framework (as in France and Germany, for example). Even in schools, space is preserved for teacher autonomy - about how they teach the required programmes of study as well as what they add to them. (And, since the Dearing reforms, there is more space to add.) Within such a framework there can be plenty of freedom. And that would be even truer if the framework were to be evolved by the higher education community itself rather than by being imposed by government (because it is possible to conceive a national curriculum which is not a government curriculum).

Another argument goes like this. You may be able to specify what children should learn and achieve in compulsory schooling, but you cannot do that in higher education because higher education is about open-ended learning and achievement at the frontiers. Certainly, defining achievement at very high levels is much harder than at lower levels. But even Ron Barnett, the most eloquent proponent of this argument, finds it necessary to try to define what he expects of higher education and of students. And you cannot actually devise courses or award degrees without doing so, though, as the Higher Education Quality Council's Graduate Standards Programme has shown, the criteria are often at best inexplicit and at worst vague. It is, or should be, possible to exemplify what is meant by intellectual creativity, analysis and synthesis, and the other qualities which the HEQC is beginning to identify as "graduateness" - and to do this discipline by discipline.

Then there is the problem of bureaucracy. The national curriculum in its original form tried to capture everything that could be captured in the educational framework - numerous and detailed attainment targets and equally detailed programmes of study and assessment arrangements. It generated paper by the tonne, and control systems developed exponentially. It was a nightmare. It had to be simplified. And there may well be scope for simplifying further. If the outcomes are specified do we need to specify the processes? (Though it is interesting that when GNVQs came along, laying down outcomes but no "syllabus", teachers protested that they did not know what to teach . . . ) How detailed do the requirements need to be? (Even a quite low level of specificity would be a lot more than we have now.) I repeat - the 1988 Education Reform Act model is not the only model of a "national curriculum", even in schools, and certainly not in higher education.

Clearly, within our higher education systems a national curriculum cannot mean a common set of subjects for all students to cover. French literature for engineers (or vice versa) might be a wonderful thing but it does not marry with a focus on study of one or a few fields in real depth. It could mean, as in the well-known example of Alverno College in the United States, a set of core aspects or themes (let us not call them "core skills" if that is unhelpful) to be pursued across all disciplines, the Graduate Standards Programme could well promote this approach. Equally, it could mean, as Lawson implies, a core of "programmes of study" and even "attainment targets" (and assessment arrangements) in at least the major disciplines, perhaps reversing the trend of differentiation of subdisciplines at undergraduate level found by Becher, Barnett and the HEQC alike. The building blocks are already there in some disciplines, through the requirements of professional bodies (we can expect to see these moving away from "process" and towards "outcome"). Bodies like the Open Learning Foundation have already devised some common teaching and learning materials which could be more widely used. And, even if NCVQs' interest in higher education needs to be "handled with great care" (THES leader, April 12), might it not be useful to adopt their approach and develop generic and/or discipline-specific "units" defining, within a national framework, outcome standards that can be the basis of parts of the final assessment? Would not this make doubly sure the assurance of "core" standards in both the generic and the discipline-specific senses?

In short, I am not calling for a reproduction within higher education of the prescriptive, government-driven approach that characterises the national curriculum in schools. There is scope for something more flexible, which would not try to tie up all the loose ends of process and outcome at once, but provide a framework for greater commonality of standards - based probably on some form of accreditation rather than on a legal requirement. Then students would know what they were getting (and what they would be able to present to employers), and could be surer that they would not be disadvantaged by which course or institution they attended. If higher education collectively rose to this challenge, it might be able to wrong-foot ignorant comments from the press and ministers about suspect standards - and reinforce our international reputation. And that might be a prize worth winning.

Anthony Woollard is the former head of the Higher Education Quality Division in the Department of Education.

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