'Standards' risk appearing meaningless

April 23, 1999

It may be "pointless" to try to establish nationally recognised degree standards, say experts commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency.

Without better direction from the QAA, the standards may be meaningless to employers, parents, potential students and anyone else outside higher education, they said.

The warning came as the QAA published the first draft statements on benchmark standards produced by subject groups in chemistry, history and law.

Each group took a different approach. The law group produced detailed notes on the minimum standards required for a student to gain a third-class degree, the history group submitted pages of guidelines on the standard likely to be attained by a "typical" student, and the chemistry group produced a lengthy checklist of attainments and qualities required for progression to a professional qualification.

Anthony Fletcher, chairman of the history benchmarking group and convenor of the History at the Universities Defence Group, said although the benchmarking work was a "fruitful exercise", it ran the risk of being seen as pointless without a consistent approach across all subjects. "Some resolution by the QAA of the variety of approaches is needed," he said.

The draft standards, which will be piloted in chemistry, history and law departments in Scotland and Wales, will play a "vital part" in the QAA's overall system due to be introduced next year.

But some members of the subject working groups say it is still unclear whether the standards are supposed to be used to assess students' attainment or to check whether departments are achieving the goals they set themselves.

They have warned that any attempt to use the standards to gauge attainment will have major implications for the role of external examiners, currently seen by university chiefs as the guardians of higher education standards.

One told The THES: "External examiners will be either pushed out or second-guessed, which is not likely to prove popular with many old universities, which rely heavily on them."

A spokeswoman for the QAA said the Agency was deliberately "hands off" in its handling of the first benchmarking groups to see what different approaches emerged. "We will be preparing a fuller brief for the next groups, drawing on the merits of these different approaches, so that we can ensure a greater consistency while still enabling each subject area to take its own route," she said.

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