Finding direction in the standardisation issue

January 8, 1999

Plans developed by four geography departments for a shared bank of computer assessable questions covering the core of the undergraduate geography curriculum are the logical corollary of the policy for standardisation and benchmarking in higher education that the government expects the Quality Assurance Agency to implement.

Until now, standardisation and benchmarking in the QAA project have been greeted with fudge and cynicism. In subjects where there is an agreed core of indispensable knowledge, as with professional qualifications, the job has often already been done - and may be the cause of complaints about conservatism and overburdening students with facts.

Outside professional disciplines and those that are progressive, the notion of threshold standards is more dubious. The suspicion is that either it will involve largely meaningless generalisations or it will mean establishing a national core curriculum in each subject. The former is seen as a waste of time. The latter would mean a huge reduction of diversity.

By stripping away the waffle, the geographers' initiative should bring a sharpness of focus to the issue. Are the developments an improvement or all we can afford? For how much of which subjects are they appropriate? Do we still value a diversity of undergraduate experience? Is the essay dead?

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