An excellent lesson in English self-appraisal

December 8, 1995

There is "widespread scepticism" in English departments about whether the benefits of teaching assessment by the funding council outweigh the costs, according to a report from the Council for College and University English.

Last June the CCUE, which represents nearly all English departments in the country, sent a questionnaire to its 75 members involved in the assessment exercise. Sixty-one replied, 32 "old" universities, 16 "new" universities and 13 colleges.

The survey found that only 53 per cent were satisfied with the overall conduct of the funding council visit. More than half the old universities in the sample were judged "excellent" compared to .5 per cent of new universities and 8 per cent of colleges.

There was a clear correlation between outcome and level of satisfaction - those institutions judged excellent were far more satisfied with the process than other departments.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has since abandoned grading departments as excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and now uses a points system.

The survey found a clear correlation between outcome and time of visit - the later a department was visited in the assessment round, the less the likelihood of an excellent judgement. Of the 14 departments visited between October and December 1994, 79 per cent were judged excellent. Of those visited in March to May 1995, only 24 per cent were judged excellent.

A spokesman for the funding council said that it did not operate a quota system and that each institution was judged on its own merits. However, he added that those institutions that submitted self assessments that claimed an excellent, were visited first, and this could account for the early rush of excellents.

There was widespread criticism of the composition of the assessment teams, particularly from "old" universities, suggesting, CCUE argues, that the system for selecting teams needs refinement.

Subject assessors, that is, those members of the team drawn from English departments, were generally seen to deal with staff, students and documentation in a satisfactory manner. But institutions not deemed excellent were highly critical of reporting assessors' understanding and knowledge.

The CCUE document concludes that more respondents wrote at greater length, without priming, about the imbalance between the exercise's possible benefits and its undoubted costs than about anything else in the survey.

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