Don's Diary

December 25, 1998

Sunday

Spend the afternoon entertaining my two-year-old by getting into top gear for Christmas.

Spend the evening frantically preparing for three hours of Beowulf the following day with the second-years, and two hours of copy editing with the final-year students.

Monday

Catch the train to Manchester for the consultation meeting of the Quality Assurance Agency, the government body that monitors the quality of university teaching. Sitting in a heaving and cold carriage, I read through the documentation sent by the QAA that includes the draft models of the law, history and chemistry benchmarking groups.

I'm amazed and pleased at the diversity of the groups' approaches. It seems that the potential inflexibility I assumed would arise from subject benchmarking is an unlikely prospect.

Tuesday

A rainy day in Manchester. Some 170 academics and subject representatives sit in long rows waiting for the group of advisers to begin their presentations on the QAA's strategy and aspects of the programme of public accountability. An air of attentive resignation hangs heavy as QAA chief executive John Randall provides a context for the work of the agency and the subsequent events of this consultation day. The faintly sinister Orwellian overtones of the "agency" strike a chord with the audience, which seems determined to maintain intellectual and professional autonomy in the face of the imposed changes.

It seems that the assembled are as unclear about the paperwork issued by the agency as I am. There is a perplexing lack of hard-and-fast information to be had, but that is the consequence of the extensive consultation period, presumably. The trialling of benchmarking begins in the new year, and it is this that should enable answers about how workable it is to be formulated.

I come away with an impression of academics who are willing to comply with directives, but who feel defensive; who are motivated by a desire to retain intellectual freedom, but are concerned to be seen to be accountable.

Wednesday

"Happy birthday," sings my mother as she draws back the curtains. "Happy birthday, indeed," I mutter on the fog-bound train to London for an English Association executive committee meeting.

Life looks brighter as I stop off to spend money at the British Library Bookshop and meet colleagues for lunch at a Hatton Garden restaurant. At the meeting we put into action plans devised at a recent Saturday symposium on the future strategy of the EA.

New directions will include a recruitment drive, a re-division of committees, an increase in professional activities, adding up to extra duties for committee members. The muted response to my report on yesterday's QAA meeting was reminiscent of the response of the delegates. I suppose it takes a while to reflect on the implications of these national initiatives.

Elaine M. Treharne

Lecturer in medieval literature, department of English, University of Leicester.

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