Rules will take up time but may not improve subjects

May 5, 2000

The benchmarking statements for 22 subjects just produced by the Quality Assurance Agency (back page) are not easy reading. But no one can claim that they have been wished on academe by a hostile bureaucracy. They are the work of subject groups consisting wholly or mainly of academics. What they are not is "standards". They are descriptions by academics attempting to encapsulate what higher education aims to convey to its students. They are long on things that are largely unmeasurable.

All the statements agree that developing critical thinking, analytical ability, IT skills and other generic knowledge is a major part of the higher education process. One cannot have a good education in, say, history simply by learning a huge variety of historical facts. Nothing new in that - except that now it is being codified so it can be written into course pros-pectuses and ticked off on checklists when the inspectors call.

Nor is all uniformity. The statements vary widely between subjects, each panel having been given considerable autonomy. Accountancy needs only seven pages (reassuring us that "recording and summarising transactions" are essential accountant attributes) while law needs 32. Some go into detail about topics that students are expected to encounter. In religion and theology for example, gender issues, recent scientific developments and critiques of western culture are subjects that students are expected to meet. Engineers need to know about risk and about the business context of their studies. But most specify little of the subject matter that must be embodied in course work. Where diversity may be lost - and innovation cramped - by discouraging different approaches to subjects in different institutions.

For academics who must satisfy the QAA of the value of their teaching, these statements, along with the QAA's newly published academic review handbook, show the hoops that must be seen to be gone through to get good marks. They leave plenty of wriggle room for debate between departments and QAA inspectors. Everyone may agree that students of politics, say, should be able to reflect on their learning and make use of feedback, but not on how this is best demonstrated.

This means there is huge scope for wrangles when courses are under review or students dispute their results. For example, theology and religion students at a "threshold" level will have to be able to "attend to, reproduce accurately and reflect on the ideas and arguments of others". The "focal" students of the same subject will have to do all that and "interact with" the ideas and arguments as well. The way lines are drawn will vary between institutions and between subjects. The lawyers specify what is required for a law degree, a joint degree involving law, law as a subsidiary subject and vocational law study. Other subjects are more impressionistic about who is expected to be able to do what.

So what are these statements really for? Their conceptual nature will disappoint those (politicians) who would like to see a national curriculum for first degrees. That drive has been in effect subverted. The trend towards the use of a small number of textbooks, especially for first-year study, is likely to prove a greater homogeniser. Few employers, parents or students are likely to study the statements closely. Institutions may be tempted to use them more as the rules of the game than as a way of improving what they offer.

Their greatest use may be to government, enabling ministers to claim that standards are being monitored and maintained, and fees are not being wasted, or debts run up, at sub-standard institutions. But the price of providing this comfort in terms of academics' time is truly enormous.

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