History in the measuring

May 8, 1998

Thirteen historians met last week to hammer out how to define standards in their subject.

The 13 historians make up the subject's benchmarking group, which will contribute to the Quality Assurance Agency's implementation of recommendations in the Dearing report.

The group will run in parallel with those in chemistry and law, and will provide advice and information on pilots for the QAA's new subject quality assessment methodology.

The 13 have split into sub-groups to focus on different aspects of teaching, learning and assessment. They expect to meet again in June and July, before a period of consultation with the profession leading up to the QAA's deadline at the end of October.

Selection was organised by the History in the Universities Defence Group, which consulted the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association, the Economic History Society, the Social History Society and the British Academy.

The HUDG has also compiled a report on standards in history which it will submit to the QAA. Chaired by Anthony Fletcher, professor of history at the University of Essex and convenor of the HUDG, the report registered strong reservations about the concept of key skills.

Professor Fletcher said: "We are in general very happy with the Dearing model, hence our involvement in the benchmarking process. But we do have one or two reservations. I suspect the agency is finding the definition of key skills as difficult as we are. The term is used a great deal at schools and further education level, but there is a great deal of confusion around it which needs to be sorted out." He said the HUDG would prefer criteria to be offered in terms of "ways of thinking - analysis, creative thinking, imagination" and approvingly cited QAA chief executive John Randall's frequent references to "highlevel intellectual ability".

The report argues that the Dearing recommendation that "programme specifications" be defined in terms of knowledge, key skills, cognitive skills and subject specific skills "involves a process of compartmentalisation which ... could represent a dangerous fragmentation of subject disciplines".

Pointing to pressures, particularly in newer universities, to comply with standardised procedures, the report suggests that "historians have become used to expressing an approach to the discipline in a language of skills more because they believe that this is now what is expected of them than because they are in any way comfortable with this approach. They are unhappy with crude and simplistic accounts of academic standards which emerge from any attempt to focus on aspects of the discipline rather than judging the whole".

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