Not all academic standards can be displayed quantitatively. But, says Anthony Fletcher, the exercise can provide valuable insights
The Dearing committee's report has put the issue of academic standards at the centre of the higher education agenda, and the Quality Assurance Agency is driving the matter forward.
Questions about institutional strategies on standards form the centrepiece of the new series of "continuation audits" of universities, which is just beginning; and 14 pilot projects with subject associations set up under the graduate standards programme will soon be complete. But the territory has hardly begun to be mapped.
The questions about how the Dearing agenda in this area can best be fulfilled with the consensual support of the subject disciplines are pressing. In light of the QAA's plans for rapid implementation, answers are needed urgently.
The Dearing report proposes a two-pronged approach. First, it recommends "programme specifications": statements of the "intended outcomes" of programmes in terms of knowledge and understanding, key skills and subject-specific skills. The intention is to provide information about degree programmes and the standard they aim to reach. This information is expected to be made available primarily in electronic form.
There are huge problems about this. How many students will want to wade through tabular IT material on a degree course's aims and outcomes rather than use prospectuses, which are at least colourful, even if propagandist? Even more crucial, what evidence is there that academics believe the intellectual content of their subject discipline can be fairly represented within specifications of this kind?
Everyone surely accepts that a mass higher education system has to serve the employment market and that clarity and explicitness about degree awards within a national qualifications framework is a laudable goal. But, perhaps because of the inexplicable failure to include one ordinary university teacher on the committee, there is confusion in the report about the place of skills in the curriculum and the key issue of transferability. With an integrated discipline such as history intended to develop qualities of mind, skills cannot be put in pigeonholes labelled "key", "cognitive" and "subject-specific".
Skills are inseparable from content. We have to convey that we are concerned with the transmission of skills and with the shaping of the mind and sensitivity. But the latter governs the former: the processes of inculcating critical and independent thought cannot be described and listed like skills. In one sense, history has broad learning outcomes. Trained historians can write and speak lucidly about their subject, and these skills are transferable. But what is more important is that historians imbibe a way of thinking and a cast of mind. This is also transferable but not easily tabulated.
Identifying academic standards in history solely in terms of skills would be a partial exercise doing scant justice to the discipline's overall intellectual and personal value. Much the same can be said of other humanities and social science subjects. The danger is that the Dearing agenda may produce a bureaucratisation of quality and standards assurance in which this vital point is lost from view.
The second, more promising aspect of the Dearing agenda on standards concerns the development of "benchmark information", which the report defines in terms of statements about achievement and expectations. This information is to be used by institutions as part of their programme approval process. More crucially, it will be used by the new-style external examiners answerable to the QAA to judge whether programmes are within the agreed standards for their named awards.
But why did the Dearing committee look at this issue of standards verification apart from its consideration of programme specification when the two are so obviously and intimately linked? And why are these framework statements about what subject groups offer students not seen as useful for prospective applicants, employers and practising academics? The effort of achieving consensus on standards will seem worthwhile to subject groups if the outcome and a final format for their work satisfies a range of interested parties.
But a number of broad questions remain for these subject teams. One concerns content. In some subjects it will be possible to agree upon a degree of prescription. History may be at an extreme, with most academics taking the view that there is no irreducible body of knowledge that represents the subject. But the largest issue is the style and manner in which this benchmark information will be made public. It cannot be information in itself that sets standards: this must remain the responsibility of each department and subject group working together with students and external examiners.
But information can provide a guide to the overall academic experience that a student following a discipline can expect to find across the sector. It can say something about content, teaching, learning, assessment styles and about skills and qualities of mind. Making all this more explicit is a challenge to which the historical profession, chosen to work with the agency on a pilot during 1998, can be expected to respond energetically.
Anthony Fletcher is professor of history at the University of Essex and is an auditor with the Quality Assurance Agency. He writes here in a personal capacity.