Senates face emasculation

April 3, 1998

The intention of the Quality Assurance Agency "would have the effect of moving the higher education sector from a position in which academic standards are determined by each institution acting independently, and verified in part by individual external examiners..." (Higher Quality, the bulletin of the Quality Assurance Agency Vol 1 No 3).

University senates unite! There are alternative rallying points: the first is to carry out statutory responsibilities to approve curricula, set standards and award degrees; the second is to do all these things provided that it is OK with the QAA.

The second option will work something like this: registered external examiners (registered after selection and training by the QAA) will be added to the normal complement of external examiners (also, the agency hopes, required by the institution to be registered) and they will have the responsibility of checking whether the standards are up to snuff "against the available subject benchmark information and against the level/award descriptors in the qualifications framework".

In addition the registered external examiners "would evaluate achievement of the declared programme objectives" and send their reports, along with all of the reports of the other but less equal external examiners, to the QAA for evaluation and publication.

Just in case any recidivist senates see a major role for themselves in setting "subject benchmarks" or the relevant level "award descriptors", then they would be wise to read the relevant consultation document in Higher Quality, Vol 1 No 3.

Benchmarks will be drawn up by about 40 relevant subject panels - national groups that will, between them, cover all known knowledge offered at degree level. The main preoccupation of these groups will be to define "threshold standards", which will be the comparator used to assess the performance of individual universities, faculties and departments. It is admitted that "the benchmark information is likely to be at a fairly high level of generality".

There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is that these benchmarks will have to succeed in measuring on a common scale, helpful to employers, students, parents, school pupils and their teachers, funding councils, the spirit of Dearing, and their respective aunts, uncles, grandparents and dogs (for example) a degree in mathematics from Imperial and from Poppleton. "Generality" seems over-ambitious here.

The reason is that, for pragmatic reasons, there will be only 40 or so subjects and massive groupings will result. The poor registered external examiners who "will need to be acknowledged subject experts who can command the respect of their peers", will have to lay aside these subject-based badges of acceptability, for "subject" has also been generalised.

Thus a professor of anatomy might find herself responsible also for reporting on the "quality of student experience" in ecology, cell biology and X-ray crystallography. Or a Germanist might find himself pronouncing on student attainment in Japanese studies, Gaelic and Italian. What a Slavonic studies "subject" expert would make of the complaint from students of Chinese that the course was over-focused on Cantonese at the expense of Put-onghua, is anyone's business.

The danger for a senate in all of this is that responsibility for setting and maintaining standards, for defining what counts as a degree of that university, will be taken from it - the ultimate form of academic emasculation.

There was a time apparently when "this system worked reasonably well, despite some variations in custom and practice, when the higher education sector was relatively small and relatively homogeneous. The rapid expansion and increasing diversity and flexibility of educational provision, however, has made the task of external examining more complicated".

Disparaging reference is made to "variations in academic standards". Of course there is variation. Moving from an age participation rate of 7 per cent in 1960 to 33 per cent in England and 45 per cent in Scotland in 1995 is bound to stretch standards or output measures. All that means is that to have a degree is no longer to be a member of an elite. It is nonetheless a worthwhile achievement because any university sets and monitors its own standards.

In a mass higher education system the role of each senate "acting independently" and defining its own standards, moderated by external examiners, is the core of accountability and the only lasting recipe for rigour and quality enhancement. Those who feel the need for the reassurance of an additional accreditation should form a kite-marking club and get on with it.

The search for the holy grail of a single, meaningful, system-wide "threshold standard" can end only in an over-generalised description, a worthless lowest common denominator, or the attempt to introduce a national curriculum and an inspectorate to back it up. The QAA has set its collective face against the latter, but when the other two are seen to be unacceptable what do they do for an encore?

Sir Stewart Sutherland is principal of Edinburgh University.

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