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Education: View From Here - Susan Bassnett

In the world of Qualityspeak, every thing has to be couched in language that conceals any hint of brutal reality
ONE OF the most fascinating things about the education quality industry is how it transforms the language. The other day I read through yet another 40-page document on some institution's quality assurance procedures, which felt like 440 pages, and kept myself awake by counting repetitions. I became almost excited when I counted 66 citings of "robust" or "robustness", and another 50-odd uses of "vigorous".

I never remember "robust" being used in this way until recently. Suddenly, everyone is claiming that their monitoring procedures are robust, that their teaching is robustly maintained and their libraries are vigorously and robustly serviced. My theory is that this particular linguistic change is linked to the discovery of Viagra. The sort of people who dreamed up all this documentation must have a thing about being robust and vigorous, and inspired by Viagra they're inserting robustness and vigour into everything. It's positively alarming.

What is equally alarming is the number of people apparently having visions. I always thought a vision was the sort of thing that happened to St Bernadette, or the children who saw Our Lady of Fatima, but apparently that's way out of date. These days you have a vision for everything - for your subject, your institution, your committee structures, your teaching - and no sooner has the vision materialised than you are supposed to set about putting it into action. Or rather, to quote the phrase from a weighty document that cost somewhere in the region of pounds 500,000 to produce, you are supposed to "seek ways of ensuring the implementation of the envisioning process".

It's too bad if you don't like the idea of all these robust and vigorous envisioning processes, because they are bound to impact on you sooner or later. Yes, that's another neologism in Qualityspeak. Things don't have an impact or produce an impact, they just go right ahead and impact on you, unmediated.

I bet there are people even now working on PhD theses on the emergence of Qualityspeak as a new language altogether, related to English but definitely evolving its own vocabulary and syntax. By the time you have undergone an audit or two, a few more teaching assessments and the odd research assessment exercise, you can bet that the Quality Assurance Agency will have invented a few more hurdles to keep us out of research labs and libraries, and a few dozen more neologisms.

You really have to work hard to stay abreast of the language development. Part of the problem is that everything has to be couched in language that conceals any hint of brutal reality. We are all using enabling language these days, I was recently told, when I protested that the term "refocusing" was nothing more than a euphemism for cuts and restructuring. "Focus" sounds so much warmer and, well, fuzzier, that we can be lulled into a false sense of security.

Everything in education today is presented in enabling language. Besides all the vigour and robustness, all the "mutuality", "reaffirmation", "visionary unity", and even, God help us, "joined-up organisation", we have a sea of terminology about how everything is perpetually improving. If you believe that, you'll believe the advertisement for instant coffee that sells itself proudly with the phrase "Just when you thought it couldn't get any better".

So, what next? Will the dumbed-down, soft-bellied, Viagra-boosted quality industry invest a large sum of taxpayers' money to train interpreters in English and Qualityspeak? Will a full-scale dictionary be commissioned soon? And will every institution soon be required to produce vision statements and envisioning process documents, together with robust assurances that the right kind of energy is flowing round, so as to enhance the learning experience? Will we soon see an Envisioning League Table? Particularly joined-up institutions would score an extra point or two on the envisioning scale, and assessors would be trained to rate potency, vigour and quality of vision.

Absurd? Not when you think of what we have now by way of improvements. When the vision league happens, remember: you read it here first.

The writer is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick