The new push to establish benchmark standards for all academic subjects came under fire this week as critics claimed the proposed scheme was unworkable.
Norman Jackson of the Quality Assurance Agency acknowledged that the task was more complicated than had been anticipated and told academics that the deadlines would inevitably slip. "The more we get in to the development, the more we realise this is an extremely complicated process," he told a Benchmarks and Thresholds conference organised by the Staff and Educational Development Agency in Manchester.
Benchmarking is intended to spell out general expectations about standards at the threshold level for the award of an honours degree in each discipline. Three pilot studies have attempted to map so-called learning outcomes in chemistry, history and law. Originally the QAA had hoped to get a final version of bench-marking up and running by the year 2001, when the current round of subject reviews ends, but Dr Jackson acknowledged that more time was needed.
The news received a mixed reaction. Some delegates were relieved, hoping that slowing the process down would enable the QAA to get the new benchmarking process right. Others were concerned about the resulting confusion from a shifting of the goal posts.
Dr Jackson acknowledged the scepticism surrounding the exercise. "Many academics don't want to engage in this process," he said.
Lewis Elton of University College London's Higher Education Research and Development Unit went even further, claiming that benchmarking should be rejected on intellectual grounds. "Benchmarking is an unbelievable simplification of what we do and lacks any intellectual basis," he said.
Liz Beaty, head of learning development at Coventry University, expressed concern that there was little reference to students in the proposed scheme. Many others feared that innovation would be stifled by the prescriptive approach, leading to a national curriculum for higher education.
There was widespread concerns that because of the timing, the demands of the next research assessment exercise would eclipse the bench-marking consultation. Professor Elton also questioned the assumption that the public was demanding more accountability: "What evidence is there that the public is dissatisfied?" he asked.
Dr Jackson said that over the next six months, 20 more institutions would be testing the scheme and creating programme specifications.