History group slams council

November 25, 1994

The first review of the English funding council's quality assessment exercise by a subject association has found a "substantial lack of confidence" in the exercise.

A survey by the History at the Universities Defence Group concluded: "It carries little academic credibility and therefore can scarcely be said to represent a wise use of public funds for education." History was one of the first academic areas to be assessed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's assessors.

The survey, which covers 43 returns from 78 institutions canvassed, criticises the funding council for its failure to "identify, clearly define and properly publicise criteria in advance of the call for self assessments". It also stands accused of failing to define what is meant by the categories of "excellent" and "satisfactory". The tension between national standards, and judgements made against a university's "mission" or objectives, has not been resolved, the review says.

The assessors themselves come in for criticism. The review says the selection process is random and criticises the frequent lack of the appropriate subject expertise and therefore the absence in practice of genuine peer review.

Plans by the funding council to extend their visits to all departments in a subject area will not solve the problem of inadequate assessors. "What we want to see is a collegiate model, with the emphasis for quality enhancement with the institutions themselves," said Andrew Porter, convenor of the group and professor of history at King's College, London.

The funding council responded by saying that many of the criticisms of the method will be addressed in the circular to be published next month. In a statement it continued: "We were surprised that HUDG were so ready to criticise their colleagues . . . All nominations are screened, but reliance is placed on institutions' willingness to put forward high calibre and appropriate staff."

The statement insisted that each institution was assessed against its own mission statement and that "there was no gold standard".

The group has also brought out its own 1994 survey of history departments. The report notes a "very striking upsurge" in the number of temporary teachers in old universities, and a significant increase in part-time staff in both the old and new university sectors.

In old universities there is a mounting reliance on graduate teaching assistants, and some history departments are utterly dependent on them. Of 21 departments which have comparable figures on student/staff ratios from 1990/91 to 1993/94 the average rose from 13.85 to 17.73 per cent, an increase of 28 per cent.

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