A national measure for minds

May 3, 1996

The debate about teaching, learning and assessment in higher education sometimes seems a long way from what matters most - the individual student's overall intellectual and personal experience of study over a three-year period.

Maybe the problem is that many of those who do the debating are no longer meeting students and talking with them. While British higher education has expanded enormously, certain fundamentals have remained: the central one being that it is a system in which most students' work is pursued within one, or perhaps two or three, subject disciplines. These disciplines have been given boundaries, traditions and methodologies over decades and they are taught by men and women whose preoccupation is their subject and its inculcation.

Academics accept that in formulating and revising their curriculum and teaching plans they cannot be entirely autonomous. They are bound into school, faculty and institutional structures. New courses will usually receive peer group evaluation from colleagues outside the specific discipline but working in adjacent fields.

Processes of internal quality review are already commonly based upon the same idea, and it looks as if the new single quality agency, very sensibly, will build upon this foundation. External examiners have become increasingly involved in curriculum matters, which makes good sense since there can be no logical disjunction between setting and defining standards and measuring how far students have achieved them. Yet, university teachers know that they have the responsibility for establishing and maintaining their own subject: they sometimes fight to do so, because herein lies their way of life, their training and apprenticeship in a common way of seeing a precious academic territory.

The curriculum and how it is taught emerges from negotiation over differences of approach and content. For although some students concentrate on vocational courses, I suspect many British academics would agree that in the end it is how students learn that matters much more than what they learn.

Our higher education system is still fundamentally about training the mind. Long may it remain so. We rightly devote much time to teaching - the use of lectures, classes, seminars, practical sessions, tutorials, projects and placements - that will best serve to make students think about difficult and challenging problems.

All undergraduate studies should be directed, surely at the simplest level, to making young people think more effectively. That means about themselves, of course, as well as about the academic work they are undertaking. Whether this is about how they take notes in a lecture, or structure an essay, or formulate plans for their life, it is one of the most important things that can come out of a student's three years at university.

All this leads back to belonging to a unit, whether this is an Oxbridge college, a department, or a curriculum programme group. This is where the real strength of our system lies. Staff responsibility for the subject discipline produces motivation; that in its turn produces dedication and effectiveness. This is the lesson I have learned over the past ten years as my experience of teaching history at Sheffield, Durham and Essex has been augmented by working on teaching quality assessments, external examinations and audit visits to a variety of universities. What has impressed me, in talking to course teams on audit visits, has been the range and vitality of their experiments in providing support for their students, in helping them to help themselves.

At one university my fellow auditor and I heard about weekly tutoring for first-year groups on one programme and about weekly business meetings to resolve matters of concern on another. In a second case we heard about induction meetings to identify and introduce study skills, followed by scheduled meetings thereafter at assessment points to discuss academic progress. A recent audit of a small college specialising in the performing arts provided us with an opportunity to discuss with staff how collectively they set and define standards by, for instance, giving attention to inculcating student self-discipline in organising the use of time and by helping them develop a repertoire of communication skills. But skills, I have learned from such occasions, can be seen as a means to an end. The end should be the self-discipline produced by rational control and rational thought.

All this is the very lifeblood of our higher education system, a lifeblood which any kind of national curriculum, whether imposed from within the university system, by an outside agency, or through government pressure, would drain away. The threat comes from various directions.

Modularisation is dangerously appealing to people who find satisfaction in bureaucratic initiatives; in neatness and packaging. Developments which have come in its wake - such as credit accumulation and transfer, accreditation of prior learning, accreditation of prior experiential learning - undoubtedly have benefits for particular groups, but are also grist to the mill of the champions of uniformity and centralised planning. A more insidious and to my mind more serious long-term threat to autonomy could come from the Higher Education Quality Council's Graduate Standards Programme. Its initial attempt, following the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' request for an investigation of "broad comparability of standards" to discover common threshold standards has run into the ground, so it is now concentrating on finding out what can be said in generic terms about "graduateness". There is talk about developing explicit "descriptors" of the expected achievements of graduates and even, among some sympathetic to this approach, of a requirement for all students to demonstrate a mastery of specified knowledge, skills and attributes.

Why, one wonders, did this project begin with so much broad theory and with so little attention to what lecturers are actually doing, to how they set standards, get their students to work hard and encourage them along the way? A set of case studies, disseminating good practice, might have been much more useful than what we have been given so far. We must not let the world of higher education split into two camps, with managers and theoreticians on one side and practising lecturers on the other. We must not retreat from teaching young people how to think for thinking's sake. We must preserve our core notion of a considerable degree of departmental autonomy, the source of staff vigour, drive and commitment and of student purposefulness and enthusiasm.

Anthony Fletcher is professor of history at the University of Essex.

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