Let history judge how to set its standards

June 19, 1998

Anthony Fletcher describes how historians are benchmarking their subject for the new quality assurance watchdog

THE CREATION of subject benchmarking information is the centrepiece of the Quality Assurance Agency's new regime. But it is argued that achieving the necessary degree of consensus is difficult or impossible and that such information will be so general as to be almost valueless.

Yet the exercise is crucial to the maintenance of standards at a time of rapid change in assessment procedures and of atomisation of assessment decisions.

The 16 members of the History Benchmarking Group believe their project is realistic and worthwhile. They will shortly hold a third meeting to discuss papers put together by four sub-groups.

At the end of its consultation exercise, the QAA's strategy appears to be in the melting pot. Yet the role and importance of benchmarking in that strategy is clear. What we can see emerging is a model in which quality of provision will largely come under internal review, with institutional auditors sampling and checking this internal subject assessment.

By contrast, standards, the principal new area of public and government concern, will be monitored by the QAA's academic reviewers, who will work with institutionally appointed external examiners.

Subject benchmarking will be relevant to the work of externals pursuing their traditional business of verifying assessment decisions. It will also be crucial to the work of the new academic reviewers, whose overview will demonstrate that comparability of standards, and explicitness about them, are key principles of the higher education system. In this respect, the work of the first benchmarking groups is positive and exciting.

Benchmarking concerns high-level intellectual attributes. A preliminary report from the History at the Universities Defence Group has focused on the historian's qualities of mind, qualities that are most effectively and economically developed by prolonged engagement with the practice and methods of the subject.

The acquisition of and ability to apply transferable skills and the development of students as competent historians are seen as proceeding hand-in-hand. The group will not, except peripherally, be concerned with the personal skills that take forward serious study, with the job-seeking qualities that may develop through working in a subject, or with the key skills that, though vital for academic study, should be seen to a large extent as a preparation for it.

Our concern will be with thresholds. We shall seek to define the main elements in history provision that enable it to meet its central objectives of inculcating historical thinking and understanding. We shall also seek to link this definition of a programme threshold to a threshold in student performance.

Realistically, this must be based on the third-class honours degree. But the group will also wish to define the higher levels of performance expected of most students.

How institutions should evaluate performance, indeed the whole future of degree classification, is a matter of debate. This is a debate to which the group hopes to contribute constructively. It is well aware of suggestions that classification should be replaced by student transcripts, yet, at the same time, it recognises that at the highest level there is a need for judgements to be made by internal and external examiners about work of distinction that might make a student deserving of research funding.

Benchmarking is intended to make an important contribution to course design and course review. This is essentially a bridging exercise. Besides bridging the worlds of academia and employment and of students and their lecturers, it must bridge the relationship between departments and institutional managements.

Subject groups that have benchmarking statements in their hands will have a platform from which they can assert what is appropriate in terms of learning, teaching and assessment methods for their own discipline. They will be able to contribute usefully to institutional level debates about setting standards through such instruments, which are becoming increasingly common, as template module descriptions.

But, if nearly 3,000 historians across the United Kingdom are to make effective use of this information, they must have full confidence in it.

Much depends on trust. The History Group was established on the basis of nominations from six leading organisations in the historical academic world. Close attention was devoted to achieving balance in terms of period and fields of expertise, institutions and regions of the UK. The group is drawing on findings from several of the Higher Education Funding Council for England projects in learning and teaching innovation. It is consulting widely and its draft benchmarking information will be sent for comment to departments and subject groups.

Subject benchmarking is not about checking autonomy or stifling diversity of provision. The group wishes to put forward and recommend good practice, but it is realistic about what may and may not be sensibly prescribed across a subject where staffing levels, cultures and traditions vary widely. There is no intention to be either restrictive or didactic.

Anthony Fletcher is convener of the History at the Universities Defence Group and chairman of the QAA's History Benchmarking Group.

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