Subject bodies develop powers of assessment

June 4, 1999

The balance of power is shifting from the managers to practising academics, says Anthony Fletcher.

The huge growth of the university sector has been marked by the proliferation of management. Subject specialists, trying to preserve the integrity of their disciplines and secure resources, have sometimes felt left out as managerial strategies for modularisation and semesterisation have marched across the land. But this dynamic is shifting.

The funding councils are setting up new subject centres to be funded at Pounds 6.2 million over three years. In considering bids for the centres, the councils will seek evidence that they have support from professional bodies and subject associations. In this way, the project marks the coming of age of a network of subject bodies as partners in the management of higher education.

The constitutional evolution and emerging power of subject bodies has been heterogeneous. The treatment of history, however, illustrates a little-noticed development that is of importance for higher education.

In history, there are four bodies that are considered to be subject associations in the broad terms adopted by the funding councils. The Royal Historical Society has 2,500 members, not all practising academics and including less than half of those teaching in the universities. It increasingly involves itself in the study and practice of history by responding to government initiatives. The History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG) represents all 2,800 of those who teach history at universities. The Economic History Society is a long-established representative body for a particular section of the academic profession, while the Social History Society is younger, acting on behalf of a group of historians whose strength within the community has greatly increased over the past three decades.

These bodies have been kept busy by the emergence of quality assessment. In the 1970s academic life was comparatively free from intrusion; now, everything is relentlessly assessed. Subject associations try to ensure that assessment is performed by those who command the respect of their colleagues, and in a fair and constructive manner.

With the successive research assessment exercises since the 1980s, funding councils have become more responsive to the views of subject associations on the criteria for assessment. Moreover, it is now standard practice to assemble RAE subject panels from lists of nominations assembled by the associations.

If research assessment is regarded as the most serious aspect of all this, it is because money follows the judgements made on collective performance. But everyone has come to accept that assessment of teaching is inescapable. In this respect, the Dearing committee's proposal in 1997 that subject associations should help to develop benchmarks that would provide a starting point for a system of review of standards was a crucial step in recognition of their public role.

The HUDG had already been active in providing feedback to the funding councils on the teaching quality assessment exercises in England, Wales and Scotland. Indeed, its review of history TQA highlighted deficiencies of the process in its early stages. Benchmarking, though, has been a new challenge.

Now that history's initial benchmark statement, on trial in Scotland and Wales, has been made available by the Quality Assurance Agency, a public view will emerge about its usefulness.

Benchmarking, in the historian's view, provides a framework for judging university programmes that are attainable by the typical history student. The statement provides a manifesto for academics to use in discussions about questions of teaching, learning and assessment.

In essence, benchmarking provides a statement about good practice. This is where the new subject centres come in. Logically, all subjects needed to go through this process before they set up a centre to encourage discipline-based research and to disseminate information about good practice in teaching, learning and assessment. History has been fortunate in that things have come in the proper order.

The result is that the profession can wholeheartedly welcome the funding council's initiative and its decision to give significant aid for teaching and learning development. This is an opportunity for subject communities to give the centres they set up the chance to encourage and support colleagues across the country in developing their work with students.

The whole project can be seen as the outcome of a federation of subject disciplines. They have shown themselves effective players in the politics of higher education and should be allowed a say in high-level policy and management. This development will strengthen the sector against threats to its independence.

Anthony Fletcher is professor of history at the University of Essex, chair of the History Benchmarking Group and convenor of HUDG.

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