The new quality assurance system set out for universities this week is "dangerously prescriptive" and could mean, in effect, a national curriculum, say its critics.
The Quality Assurance Agency has published the first batch of national benchmarks for 22 subjects, spelling out the explicit levels of academic achievement required for degree courses.
In addition, a Handbook for Academic Review explains how the benchmarks are likely to be enforced by the agency's "academic reviewers" who will report on standards.
Almost all the benchmarks, compiled by academics, include a checklist detailing the skills and intellectual abilities expected. Some give the minimum "threshold" expectations for low-achieving graduates, others give the expectations for a "typical" student.
But the benchmarking groups in history and English refused to provide a checklist. Anthony Fletcher, chair of the history benchmarkers and professor of history at Essex University, said his group was concerned that a "tick box" was too crude.
"The whole business is extremely complicated and not easily dealt with by achievement thresholds," he said. "There are problems of institutional autonomy here. The QAA is not setting the content of courses but what could emerge is a national skills curriculum."
Professor Fletcher was also concerned that the benchmarking groups had been asked to produce benchmarks before it was clear how they would be used. "It is now clear that they will be used as just the starting point, with explicit programme specifications to follow. There is a risk that this could all become terribly prescriptive."
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, said that the benchmarks raise questions about diversity and autonomy.
Simeon Underwood, head of the professional courses unit at Lancaster University, expressed doubt that the system would reduce bureaucracy and cost.
QAA chief executive John Randall said: "Academic review is the product of extensive consultation involving the participation of thousands of academics and the canvassing of the views of employers and other stakeholders.
"I believe that we now have a system that is capable of commanding the confidence both of the academic community and of the wider society that it serves."
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