The making of a history graduate

A controversial attempt to benchmark university subjects seems to be bearing fruit in history says Anthony Fletcher Thinking is governed by a deeply held view about how history trains the mind
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Quality Assurance Agency sees subject benchmarking as a key element in its new model for assurance of quality and standards, yet, when it consulted on this, the response of higher education institutions was cool. Only about a quarter expressed support for the principle of benchmarking; most were neutral or had reservations; a minority were opposed in principle or highly critical. Yet the experience of history is beginning to suggest that benchmarking may be going to be useful, indeed that to many teaching the subject the process is welcome.

The History Group has been discussing benchmarking since April. It is a representative group in terms of old universities, new universities and colleges, of UK regions and of specialisms within the discipline. The group has 16 members in all.

Written responses received from the profession to the draft statement are generally favourable. When around 60 historians from across the UK met the group just before Christmas there was lively discussion of many aspects of the statement, all of it supportive. Today the group meets John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, to discuss the dissemination of the final statement.

How is it that we may have confounded the sceptics? In the first place, it has never entered our minds that our task might involve establishing a national curriculum in history, or that we would in any way wish to stifle creativity, diversity and innovation in teaching the subject. We've tried to tread the narrow path between writing an account of the subject that is sufficiently challenging, and being too prescriptive about how colleagues should construct a syllabus, teach or assess their students.

The Quality Assurance Agency asked us to produce "broad statements which represent general expectations about standards". There has been a constant dialogue - both between ourselves and with the agency - about what precisely we are trying to do. We have found ourselves to be most comfortable writing with the achievement of the typical student in mind, and focusing our attention upon establishing a framework for judging degree programmes which set an acceptable level for such a student.

Our assumption has been that for our statement to be useful to both staff and students - considering it in relation to their local circumstances - it needs to be comprehensive in scope. Thus we have discussed the historian's qualities of mind: these include the ability to read texts critically, to appreciate the problems that are involved in interpreting complex, ambiguous and usually incomplete material, to sift, select, organise and synthesise large quantities of evidence and to marshal argument, expressing it in both written and oral forms clearly and coherently. We consider criteria which might be applied in determining content of courses, the issue of progression, teaching, learning and assessment. We end with a list of learning outcomes, which build upon the qualities of mind that we stress and include awareness of continuity and change over time, a command of comparative perspectives and the use of contemporary sources to address historical problems in depth.

The QAA's language has become one of outcomes. There is a need for some refinement of what the concept means. Everyone accepts that students do much more at university than simply study their degree subject or subjects, and that transferability of skills and employability are matters of legitimate national interest.

We have not taken on board key skills, believing that these should have been mastered before arriving at university. Our thinking is governed by a deeply held view about how history trains the mind. Curriculum building we suggest, consists of selecting from the vast body of knowledge that constitutes the subject, and using knowledge to develop the qualities of mind mentioned earlier. Thus we believe that the cumulative acquisition of and ability to apply transferable skills and the development of students as competent historians proceed hand in hand.

Subject benchmarking is the first stage of a scheme that attempts something new in higher education: assessment of and judgements about standards. This is a far more complex matter than Teaching Quality Assessment. Many of the members of the History Group will not be retiring to the sidelines as QAA policy develops. Instead we will engage vigorously in debate with the agency about how the new model can best be implemented. We have difficulties with what the QAA envisages next, the scheme known as programme specification. We accept, of course, and state bluntly, that departments must make explicit what they expect of students, setting out through comprehensive documentation aims, objectives, assessment methods and weightings, together with criteria for assessment and degree classification. It is our experience that most departments do this already and that there is already much experimentation in departmental handbooks with statements about transferable skills, graduate attributes and learning outcomes.

University managements should continue to encourage this. What we find entirely unacceptable is the notion that staff should write a specification to a standard format for each degree programme. Historians dislike the QAA's template for this because it does not do justice to the integrity of their discipline. In fact its compartmentalisation, its use of separate boxes for "knowledge and understanding", "intellectual skills", "subject practical skills" and "transferable skills", is false and misleading. This format could do real damage in the hands of students seeking to grasp the nature of the discipline they are studying. The group took a policy decision not to use the phase programme specification in its statement, since it sees this as tainted by the overtones of standardisation and bureaucratisation in the QAA's current approach to the matter.

Between now and July some of the group will be involved with others in the trialing in certain institutions of the new model for academic review. We shall hope to contribute purposefully and constructively to this, knowing that it is of crucial importance that a scheme emerges which is intellectually convincing, coherent and acceptable to the sector as a whole. The funding committee's proposal that external examiners report directly to it and its self-denying ordinance on discussion with them preclude judgements about individual performance. Academic review should concentrate on a department's ability to deliver on standards. This means relating the benchmarking framework to its own learning outcomes and the local assessment methods that test these. There is a long way to go. But working with the QAA has been stimulating and worthwhile. The assurance of standards, rather than simply checking on educational provision, may well be achievable.

Anthony Fletcher is a professor of history at the Essex University and chair of the History Benchmarking Group