The bottom line on standards

Wheels are in motion to find a basic threshold on degree quality, writes Geoffrey Alderman
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Students who might currently graduate with third-class honours could in future leave university without an honours degree at all as universities are now considering a base-line graduate standard. The change is in response to government demands for broad comparability of standards in higher education.

The Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) has established a Graduate Standards Programme based on the universities' view that each institution is responsible for the awards it confers.

What is actually being investigated is the possibility of developing threshold standards - that is, broad definitions of the generic skills that students need to demonstrate in order to qualify for a range of undergraduate degrees. What isdefinitely not being contemplated is a suite of national curricula that all universities will have to teach. That is not on the agenda.

Most institutions have yet to develop explicit criteria for measuring graduate standards, and undertake comparative benchmarking. At the level of the subject it might be argued that academic practitioners know a threshold standard when they see one. Perhaps they do. But the spread of modular degrees has led to situations in which different subjects assessed with reference to different thresholds are combined for the purposes of making an award. Here the need to offer a definition of an overall threshold becomes even more urgent.

Hitherto the major defence put up by universities when asked how they assure standards and comparability of standards has been to point to the external examiner system. So the publication by the HEQC of a consultation document based on the report of Professor Harold Silver's inquiry into the possible future for the external examiner system is very timely.

This system is in a state of crisis, and has been for the past decade. In 1985 the Lindop Report (Academic Validation in Public Sector Higher Education) cast doubt on the effectiveness of the system overall. The following year, in a cross-binary study which has remained largely unpublished, Professor David Warren Piper called into question whether external examiners were actually ensuring "comparability". In 1990 Professor Philip Reynolds questioned whether the system was even guaranteeing academic standards; the external examiner system, he declared, has little to offer in relation to the academic standards of the higher education system or of individual institutions within it.

As the HEQC consultation document makes clear, a number of pressures have greatly reduced the former effectiveness of the external examiner system: the much larger student body being examined; the introduction of modular and work-based learning degree schemes; a much wider institutional diversity; the proliferation of new subjects; the squeeze on resources which has left the remuneration of external examiners in a derisory state.

The document makes a number of ritualistic incantations no doubt deemed appropriate as remedies for this state of affairs: more training; national guidelines of good practice and codes of conduct; a re-evaluation of fees and status; even a national register of external examiners. But although reflecting a view widespread in the sectors which the HEQC wants to retain in the system, it is candid enough to admit that the major conclusion of the Silver report is pessimistic: in their role as calibrators of standards, external examiners are (not surprisingly) only effective at the level of the subject.

Nowadays external examiners are being appointed less for their subject expertise than because of their sympathy with the institutional mission or the departmental or programme objectives.

This has led to institutions increasingly nominating and appointing external examiners from pools of institutions which are seen to share common characteristics such as mission statements, departmental philosophies, modes of provision. The HEQC admits that this state of affairs potentially compromises notions of national standards.

We need to ask whether in such a diverse higher education system, with now no less than 104 institutions in the UK empowered to award first degrees, this notion of "national" standards has or can have any tangible meaning. Publicly the sector still likes to maintain that degrees are indeed broadly comparable across subjects and between institutions. Privately many would admit that this is no longer true.

Research published last year by Professor Keith Chapman of Aberdeen University has revealed alarming differences between the proportion of "good" honours degrees awarded by UK geography departments. It seems that these results would be replicated in many other subject areas.

Some practitioners argue that attempts to define even threshold standards should be abandoned and that market forces should instead be allowed to establish a hierarchy of esteem, known to would-be undergraduates and to employers.

For some of the more ancient seats of learning this might appear an attractive option. But such considerations would not exempt institutions from defining their own academic thresholds that both students and employers and government funding bodies will wish to scrutinise.

There was a time when the class of degree obtained mattered much less than the name of the university which awarded it. The former Prime Minister, Lord Home, obtained a Third in history at Oxford, and a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, obtained a Fourth in law.

Current debate about standards has, in any case, cast doubt on the usefulness of degree classification which, at best, offers a very blurred snapshot of a student's real capabilities.

In vocationally orientated subjects, such as medicine or engineering, it might be possible to define curriculum-specific national standards and to enforce them. In others such as history and literature, it is not. But it is still possible to lay down threshold standards, focusing on the essential qualities of what the HEQC terms "generic graduateness". This is the task that the Graduate Standards Programme is now addressing.

Professor Alderman is head of the Academic Development and Quality Assurance Unit at Middlesex University.