Lecturers need to wave subjects' flag

February 14, 1997

MASS higher education has made it difficult to be certain about standards, according to the Higher Education Quality Council. So it should be a matter of concern to all lecturers that they know what the council's joint planning group is recommending in its graduate standards programme draft report.

The final version of the report from the JPG, which is setting up the new single agency for quality assurance, says that standards are a matter for those who design and teach programmes, together with the institutions that award degrees or diplomas.

The new agency is not expected to define standards in terms of curricular content and assessment criteria. But is there a danger that the agency might end up defining them in other terms, such as core generic skills?

Employers and students and not subject specialist groups have made the running in the programme's investigation of generic skills. The report found that those in traditional academic fields were inclined to think that "the characteristics of a graduate, if definable at all, are subject specific". Newer disciplines, such as hospitality management and environmental studies, were more sympathetic to generic definitions.

The Higher Education Quality Council has, in its attempt to shape its notion of graduateness, compiled a pilot graduate attributes profile using terminology such as "flexibility", "enterprise" and "communication". This is a brave attempt to build something on a mass of evidence submitted to the project. But some subject groups queried the similarities in the vocabulary of "graduateness" used by different disciplines.

Faced with such scepticism, the report rightly urges subject groups to be more active in clarifying standards. Lecturers have got used to thinking about how to make their subjects relevant to the personal and social development of their students. The sector is also getting to grips with transferable skills. Now the question set out starkly by the GSP report is: will the subject disciplines seek to integrate themselves in a positive way with what they find constructive in the generic skills movement or will they hand the baton to academic managers and let themselves be subordinated to it and submerged by it?

The report proposes that the new agency should "develop and confirm in partnership with institutions a range of generalised expectations for degrees" and that this should be accepted as a framework for all degree programmes.

The key word here is "expectations", for what the report reveals is that these expectations are none other than the skills with which we are now familiar and which the report describes and profiles.

The danger is of a national curriculum defined in terms of generic skills that are inculcated in a way that distorts and restricts subject integrity.

Subject groups have a big task ahead. They need to discover what kind of common ground exists in their subject communities about syllabus structure, teaching methods and assessment. They should ask their constituencies how far they can accommodate themselves to the demands of a transferable skills regime without damaging the rigour, quality and integrity of the particular discipline.

The GSP report lacks understanding of the wholeness of subject disciplines. The project has not included any work in depth with particular teams of subject teachers, such as would have given an insight into the processes of debate and reflection on the integration of content, method and assessment that provides direction and informs purposefulness.

In simply calling for typologies and profiles it is dodging this crucial issue. It is unsympathetic to the whole culture of traditional university study and its language is out of touch.

Anthony Fletcher is professor of history at the University of Essex.

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