Anthropology chiefs boycott 'deaf' QAA

May 21, 1999

The Quality Assurance Agency's plans for academic review and benchmarking will be "catastrophic" for anthropology departments, leaders in the field have warned. And the academic community has unanimously vowed to reject further dialogue with the agency until its demands are met, claiming it is "talking to the deaf".

The Standing Conference of Anthropology Heads of Department, with support from four further anthropology organisations, has written to the QAA rejecting absolutely its plans to "subsume" the field within sociology, as part of a move to establish subject benchmarks.

"I must report to you that no British anthropologist will be willing to serve in a joint benchmarking group with sociology, and that the profession is only willing to cooperate with QAA henceforth on the basis of recognition of anthropology as a distinct subject for quality assurance and assessment purposes," wrote John Gledhill, convenor of the standing conference and head of social anthropology at the University of Manchester, in a letter to the QAA's assistant director Mike Laugharne.

"It is not simply the anthropology department heads who now feel that we must take a stand," he said, "but all the other professional organisations that work with us."

The anthropologists said that the QAA had failed to recognise that anthropology is not exclusively a social science. Biological anthropology, which the standing conference insists must not be treated simply as another "stem" of a social science, is taught in a third of all British anthropology departments. "The QAA's persistent refusal to pay attention to the existence of biological anthropology is quite extraordinary," said Professor Gledhill.

The standing conference also believes that the QAA has largely ignored its concerns, arguing its point in private for more than a year. Professor Gledhill said he had "wasted an enormous amount of time and effort talking to the deaf".

Anthropologists fear that the decision to group the discipline with sociology could be the "thin end of the wedge that will shape the whole quality assurance and assessment process".

The standing conference is alarmed at a recent letter from the QAA that indicated that the benchmarking process would also help to shape the academic review process in the longer term.

It has complained about a "disturbing lack of clarity in QAA pronouncements" when the regime is still evolving.

"There is a general feeling that assurances on 'lack of intention to be prescriptive' and 'not aiming to stifle innovations and new development' cannot be treated as guarantees given the possibility of changes in the political wind," wrote Professor Gledhill. "I have yet to meet anyone, in any discipline, or at any level of university administration, who is entirely unconcerned about the ambiguities and vagueness still present in the evolving quality assurance system."

A spokesman for the QAA said it was "disappointed" at the standing conference's response. "We have acknowledged in a letter that we understand their desire to maintain an identity as a separate subject, and we had invited them to a meeting with the sociologists. It is sad they will not attend. We are still open-ended about the next steps."

But Professor Gledhill said: "We have still effectively been told to accept the QAA's insistence on joint benchmarking with sociology. We now feel that it is past the point when any further dialogue on the issue could be fruitful."

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