The Quality Assurance Agency's policy development on benchmarking has become a shambles. Vice-chancellors, uneasy about campus autonomy in the light of the new blueprint, should be seizing the chance presented by a consultation until March 6 on 19 subject benchmark statements to review the progress of the agency's overall plans. It is not too late to make benchmarking a purposeful instrument for extending good practice in teaching. This was the promise of the scheme. The drift towards coercive inspection must be decisively halted.
Appendix 3 to the code of practice on external examining, just published by the agency's institutional review directorate, states firmly that academic review has no part to play in the assessment of individual students and that reviewers will not look at work currently subject to internal assessment, intervene in assessment procedures or query the judgements of external examiners about individual students' marks or grades. Reviewers' concern is with relating an institution's standards to national reference points and with the match between intended learning outcomes and actual achievement. The appendix provides security both for institutional autonomy and for the professional integrity of academics who agree to act as QAA reviewers.
The agency's steer to the new subjects groups in 1999 was pursued against the advice of chemistry and history and followed an ambiguous lead from law, which attempted threshold benchmarking but was evidently not comfortable with it. This steer has relied upon a culture of compliance. Yet at least some of the new groups have had the good sense to resist QAA's misguided separation of process and outcomes and have insisted on giving attention to teaching and learning besides exploring threshold standards.
Whereas the essence of the history position is a single standard for programme benchmarking, the new groups have been induced to provide checklists of varying length of threshold and typical attainment outcomes. Any use of these in academic review is vitiated by the newly published terms of engagement between reviewers and externals. Failing to take advice in the early stages, the QAA has wasted much academic time and effort promoting an abortive scheme of definition of threshold standards. This was never a likely starter, since thresholds are a complex matter, best judged using degree criteria that have been carefully pondered locally at faculty and programme levels. There are two lessons to be learnt from this fiasco. First, QAA cannot be trusted with the further development of benchmarking, which the universities need to find a way to take into their own hands. Second, vice-chancellors should ensure that, if they nominate reviewers, they are fully briefed about the appendix to the external examiners' code.
Anthony Fletcher Chair, History Benchmarking Group Professor of history, University of Essex