There's a stranger in class

Lesley Gerard joins a Higher Education Funding Council assessment team as it makes the rounds at Nottingham University
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The Independent Online
"We have got nothing to hide, we are looking forward to it, honestly we are,'' insists Dr Peter Herrity, head of Russian and Slavonic Studies at Nottingham University. His words are brave, but behind his smile is a flicker of anxiety.

For the next three days Dr Herrity and his staff of six full-time and eight part-time academics will be under constant scrutiny, shadowed, quizzed and criticised by assessors from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The stakes are high. The department is one of the first in the country to undergo the Government's new assessment process, revised after complaints from universities that the old system was unfair.

It will be graded on its teaching and quality of provision against its own written aims and objectives. The final report will be published and could - depending on the outcome - affect student recruitment.

The assessors have gathered in a private room in a separate building on campus. They have all read the university's self-assessment of its provision and based on this are concerned about the resourcing of the library and the role and support given to part-time staff.

Professor Bill Plumbridge, the chief reporting assessor, briefs the team of three subject specialists from other universities, a Russian expert from the BBC and a trainee reporting assessor, Dr Andrew Dawson of St Andrews University.

"The motto is: if it moves, talk to it, if it doesn't move, count it,'' says Mr Plumbridge, professor of materials at the Open University.

There follows a frantic schedule, observing lectures, inspecting student essays, projects and exam papers, together with provision of information technology, language laboratories, library resources and the careers service. In-depth interviews are conducted with students, staff and senior university officials. Meetings and report writing go on late into the night.

Professor Plumbridge is a veteran of 15 assessment visits.

"This is about peer review, which is crucially important,'' he explains. "We are all from academia, so we do understand about difficult students and resourcing constraints. We are looking for good teaching practice that can be passed on, and areas where improvements can be made.''

The four specialist assessors, one man and three women, are new to the process. They are sensitive to the point of insisting that neither they nor the institutions where they work can be named. One of them says the assessors are under pressure, too. "We feel a great responsibility for the final report and its impact.''

Their reluctance to be identified may also be due to the fact that teaching assessment in universities has been dogged by controversy since it was first launched two years ago. Supporters insist that it has brought good teaching practice to the fore.

However, many universities and their staff have bristled at the intrusion. They say both the money and academics' time could be better spent.

Under the old system, universities submitted self-assessments to the funding council, upon which a decision to visit was based. Under the new system every department is visited on a subject-by-subject basis. Previously, they were classed in three broad bands: unsatisfactory, satisfactory or excellent. Now they are given grades from one (the lowest) to four in six core areas: curriculum design, content and organisation; teaching, learning and assessment; student progression and achievement; student support and guidance; learning resources; and quality assurance and enhancement. The changes are intended to make the critique more rigorous and specific.

By the end of the second day, the assessors between them have sat through and given feedback on 20 lectures. They have been watching not just the teachers' but also the students' reactions.

On the whole they are impressed, making only minor criticisms.

The staff insist the experience of having a stranger in class was eased to an extent because the university already operates internal quality examinations across departments.

Cynthia Marsh, senior lecturer in Russian Language and Literature, says: "I forgot my assessor was there. When you are teaching, your concentration is enormous. There were points when I thought, oh my goodness, what is she thinking? But only momentarily. In a sense you realise the students are assessing you all the time.''

The students give their department a glowing report, although they identify a weakness with the arrangements for the year abroad. It is a variable experience, depending on where students are sent, they say. When the assessors probe further the students accuse them of being aggressive and negative.

Hazel Rodrigues, a fourth-year French and Russian student, says: "I got the impression they thought we were handpicked because we would say positive things. I am very honest, the department just happens to be really good.''

At the end of the third day the Russian and Slavonic Studies department gets its verbal feedback. It has scored highly - five threes and one four for student support and guidance. The library has been praised after earlier misgivings, part-time staff, it is concluded, have been given a high level of training by their colleagues, but there is room for further staff development.

The positive result is perhaps predictable - no university would have allowed a reporter to document its department's fortunes if it had not been fairly certain of a favourable outcome.

Dr Herrity, however, is delighted: "I told you it was going to be a positive experience,'' he crows.