The golden irretrievable

November 1, 1996

Stop harking back to a non-existent golden age, urges Geoffrey Alderman. To foil the nationalisers the sector must self-regulate on standards without delay..

Standards now top everyone's agenda. As reported in The THES last week, the Higher Education Quality Council has just reported on the views of its Graduate Standards Programme on the protection of degree standards and standards are likely to be one of the Dearing committee's major preoccupations. There are signs that the Government might not even wait until Dearing has reported before it acting on standards.

A fierce debate on the ownership of standards has taken place within the joint planning group which has been deliberating on the shape and scope of a single quality-assurance agency. Some would like to exhume the Council for National Academic Awards (of blessed memory) to police standards in every degree-awarding institution in the United Kingdom. They point to evidence that in the "old" universities over the past 25 years or so, the upper second has become the most common exit qualification, while thirds have become a rarity, and argue that "grade inflation" would never have happened had a national standards agency with real powers been in existence.

Others are alarmed by the alleged fragmentation of standards in an expanded sector. It is all very well, they argue, for each university to declare what its standards are, and to enforce those standards in exemplary fashion. But how is an unsuspecting public to compare one set of standards with another? When the higher education system was made up of a small elite there was a common standard. Now there is no commonality. Diversity is all very well, but limits must be set, and only a national standards agency can map this territory, and police its borders.

We need to be very clear about the ultimate destination to which these interests will take us. And we need to be just as clear about the historical myths on which their arguments are based. Those who argue that there once really was an academic "gold standard", to which all universities adhered, are labouring under a delusion. Having served as an external within the "old" sector, I can refute the view that the levels of attainment needed to secure particular assessment outcomes in one institution necessarily mirrored those which obtained in another. They did not.

The HEQC recently issued a guidance document, Strengthening External Examining, which stresses the need to maintain and bolster "a national framework" for external examining. No such framework has ever existed. The CNAA liked to suppose that it ran a national system of external examining resulting in national standards. But it did nothing of the sort, as the research of David Warren Piper has made clear.

The HEQC has, however, made one very decisive impact on the standards debate. As its auditors have asked ever more searching questions about the derivation and underpinning of the standards they encounter, so institutions have been compelled to refine and articulate their standards, and demonstrate how they compare with those at other institutions. The battle for explicitness and transparency is being won.

But it is this very glasnost that has reactivated the doom mongers, and led them to campaign for nationalisation, or at least state control. The proliferation of degree titles has deepened their alarm, and as they resume the search for "graduateness", that most elusive of concepts, they take comfort from the support they receive across the political spectrum.

Their fears are justified, in part. There must be limits to diversity. I am talking about the concept of a threshold, and the sector must agree what this threshold is, at least in broad terms, and secure it through self-regulation. If it does not, its flank will be exposed to the nationalisers, some of whom are already hard at work flaunting the advantages of a national higher education curriculum and system of assessment.

Even supposing that the finance was available to support such reforms, I doubt that they would lead to a nationally enforceable gold standard. Rather, the national assessment boards, and all their sub-boards and joint-boards, would become battlegrounds for academic vindictiveness and back-biting. Engineers and lawyers might be able to agree on national curricula, but what chance is there of historians, or physicists, reaching similar conclusions? Not much, we might conclude, unless they were bribed.

Let me flesh out a worst-case scenario. Under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, the Government could invest the funding councils with the authority to define and enforce academic standards. This could be done by adding a standards dimension to their quality assessment obligations. Assessors would derive standards from professional accrediting bodies, or convene "subject panels" under funding council auspices, and would find worthy academics, eager to resurrect the worst kind of intellectual exclusivity and snobbishness, to become panel members.

If academic autonomy is to be preserved, and standards underpinned, the sector needs to understand what is required in the way of robust self-regulation, and implement those requirements with a minimum of delay.

Geoffrey Alderman is head of the academic development and quality assurance unit, Middlesex University.

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