Key to the door for graduates

October 26, 1995

It is ironic that at the very moment when sweetness and light has broken out on all sides in what had become a largely sterile debate about how to ensure the quality of university teaching, the real debate has come to focus on the much more complex issue of standards.

I have always believed that, despite the very substantial additional demands on overstretched colleagues, quality audit and assessment have, on balance, been beneficial to higher education, ensuring that competent and professional teaching has its rightful place at centre stage in every university. Paradoxically, however, quality assurance as an externally organised and regulated activity ought to lead to its own demise.

The mark of success is when individuals, departments and entire institutions come to take for granted, to internalise, not just appropriate procedures but the attitudes which accompany them - and when this happens, highly structured monitoring should cease to be necessary. My guess is that quality assurance, as it is currently understood, has a natural life cycle which may already be half over.

Conversely, the debate about standards is only just beginning, and may prove much more difficult to take forward. As the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' new chairman showed members in Belfast last month, each successive improvement in opportunities for school-leavers to move into higher education has been accompanied by cries of falling standards, often from people who should have known better. From the 1920s through to the Robbins era, many of those who had themselves benefited from higher education in an earlier generation have been less than welcoming about its extension to the sons and daughters of others.

This is partly because of a public determination to insist that all bachelor's degrees are in some sense "equal". It has always seemed clear to me that, particularly as participation rates have increased, the concept of a single standard which all graduates might be expected to attain becomes ever more problematical - and yet, there is an increasingly articulated view, not just within our institutions but much more widely, that the fact of being a graduate should be a mark of certain attainments and capabilities.

And herein may lie the key. The threshold standards which many now believe should be specified for our various qualifications cannot, and indeed must not, be defined in terms of content, of the precise curriculum followed.

Leaving aside the obvious dangers of any attempt to prescribe what institutions teach, there is the further risk of inhibiting all innovation. When I went to Salford in the early 1970s to work with a group of colleagues who had developed an exciting and innovative modern languages programme the fact that certain traditional literary courses were not offered caused doubts in some quarters about the standard of the degree. How times change - but how vigilant we must be to ensure that we do not impose any straitjackets on ourselves to prevent such developments in future.

However there do seem to be certain characteristics which ought to pertain to being a graduate. The ability to assimilate and evaluate evidence, and to present conclusions fluently and competently, the ability to handle confidently the sources of information and analytic skills relevant to one's field, whether as an engineer or a lawyer or a historian, all of these are qualities which society expects to find in a graduate. Surely it is in this area that we could and should seek to identify that threshold standard which all British graduates should attain.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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