A tale of hard times that is worthy of Dickens

November 17, 2000

Changes to subject reviews will see institutions ceding academic autonomy to the QAA, warns Stephen Court

Hard times have fallen on higher education. No, this is not a whinge about money. It is to point out that the unreformed spirit of Thomas Gradgrind, the "inflexible, dry and dictatorial" systematiser of knowledge in the Dickens novel Hard Times , is thriving in our universities.

For the fictional 1850s Coketown, whose factory chimneys spewed out "interminable serpents of smoke", read Quality Assurance Agency in 21st-century Gloucester. Its website overflows with directives intended to regulate, homogenise and parcel up the post-industrial product that is higher education.

From this autumn, the agency is starting a new six-year cycle of assessment of higher education. Previous subject reviews have been limited to assessing the quality of the education provided. They produced an overall judgement that said whether the quality of education was approved.

The new system will also include a verdict that will be made public on whether the reviewers were confident or not in the academic standards of a programme. The revised system started in Scotland last month and will extend to the rest of the United Kingdom in January 2002.

This is a profound change that could have a devastating impact on failed departments, their staff and students. Universities have largely been in charge of what they teach, how they teach it and, with the help of external examiners, maintaining their degree standards. But these changes will see institutions ceding academic autonomy to the QAA.

Assisting the academic reviewers will be a raft of measures developed by or for the agency, mainly as a result of recommendations in the Dearing report of 1997. The agency expects all institutions to implement its national framework for academic qualifications by the end of the review cycle in 2006. The QAA, which describes the system as "a framework, not a straitjacket", is concerned that degree titles, particularly at masters level, should not be misleading. It had hoped to finalise the framework this month, but resistance from institutions, chiefly over where the proposed foundation degree fits in, has forced the agency to go back to the drawing board.

Earlier this year, the agency published benchmark statements for standards in 22 academic subjects. A further 23 will be published by next year. The aim of the statements is to describe the nature, extent and characteristics of a programme of study in a particular subject. The agency expects the cycle of reviews to use these statements in making judgements about academic standards. The QAA denies the statements are, in effect, a national curriculum for higher education. But the danger is that they will turn into a blueprint for each subject.

The Dearing report recommended that each institution develop a specification for each programme of study in each subject offered, immediately. The specifications should express the knowledge, understanding, key skills (communication, numeracy, teamwork), cognitive skills (ability to analyse) and subject-specific skills (laboratory work) a student would be expected to have on completion of the programme.

The agency includes subject benchmark statements in the list of reference points academic staff might use in developing their programme specifications. In turn, the agency anticipates the specifications will be used in forming judgements in academic review.

The specifications will also be expected to feed into the progress files being developed for students. This file is likely to include a record of what each student has studied and the awards achieved. The agency envisages progress files being introduced by 2001-02.

The tightly interlocking quality and standards infrastructure being introduced this autumn will, without doubt, add to the burden of bureaucracy faced by academics. The Gradgrinds of the QAA protest that their methods will involve a lighter touch. Don't believe it. In the codes of practice the agency is developing, I have counted no fewer than 158 rules or "precepts" on, for example, student complaints or career guidance for institutions to implement by this time next year.

Of course, steps should be taken against poor teaching and poor resources. Universities must be accountable for their use of public money. It is right that they should set out clearly, for students and employers, what each course sets out to achieve and how they assure quality and standards.

But institutions will be putting so much effort into compliance that they will risk neglecting the purpose of higher education itself. More profoundly, academic autonomy and diversity will be eroded by a desire to conform to the Dearing/QAA mould or by a fear of stepping out of line.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers.

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