What a disappointment, comparatively speaking

Sir Ron Dearing has not addressed the issue of standards across all institutions, says Geoffrey Alderman
Terms of reference are important for what they leave out, as well as for what they say and the way in which they say it.

I remembered this maxim as I read the terms of reference (announced last week) of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing. I recalled that in the letter the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, wrote on 21 September to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, she assured the universities that she attached "much importance to the enhancement of quality and the maintenance of broadly comparable degree standards".

I recalled that in professing this deep preoccupation, Mrs Shephard followed hard on the heels of her predecessor, John Patten.

It was, after all, in the summer of 1994, in response to Mr Patten's invitation to play closer attention to "broad comparability of standards", that the CVCP asked the Higher Education Quality Council to consider the development of the threshold standards for undergraduate degrees.

Since then the HEQC's Graduate Standards Programme has been very busy undertaking this developmental work. So I fully expected Mr Patten's concern, echoed just five months ago by Mrs Shephard, to be reflected in the Dearing terms of reference.

But it isn't. All that is said is that Sir Ron's inquiry should have regard to the principle that "standards of degrees and other higher education qualifications should be maintained and assured".

For a moment I thought that I was being too pedantic. Surely, I reflected, "standards of degrees" also means - must mean - broad comparability of standards.

I was wrong. A source within the Department for Education and Employment confirmed my initial literal reading of the text: the question whether there should be (or, as some might say, continue to be) broadly comparable degree standards across all the higher-education institutions of the UK is itself something that the Government expects Sir Ron and his colleagues to address.

Maintaining that broad comparability is no longer an immovable cornerstone of the Government's (and, presumably, since it has welcomed the Dearing inquiry, the Opposition's) higher-education policy. The question for Dearing is not how to achieve the principle of broad comparability, but whether the principle itself is any longer worth fighting for.

On reflection, it is really not so difficult to understand why politicians have reached this precipice, and why they have asked Sir Ron to help them to cross it. The GSP's Interim Report, published at the end of last year, drew attention "to a significant body of opinion which holds that little or no direct or precise comparability of standards exists", and suggested that "inconsistencies and other weaknesses" in the external- examiner system meant that that system could no longer be relied upon to "play an important part in aligning standards".

Research commissioned by the GSP demonstrates that in the "old" universities, over a 21-year-period, the Upper Second has become the most common standard of exit qualification in a broad range of degree subjects (so much for the libel that "grade inflation" is a disease spread by the former polytechnics).

This does not necessarily mean that standards have fallen. What it does mean, the GSP says, is that "uniformity in the standards of all degrees across all examinations (which might be achieved through national curriculums or examinations) is regarded as neither desirable nor sensible since innovation might be stifled and the present responsiveness of higher education to a diverse marketplace curtailed".

Mrs Shephard's advisers appear to have read the GSP's Interim Report, and to have accepted its blunt message. In a diverse higher-education system, in which different institutions, with different missions, cater for different clienteles, talk of maintaining "broadly comparable degree standards" is a nonsense - unless, of course, we have broadly comparable national university curriculums.

I doubt that even Sir Ron would dare to suggest that solution.

The author is head of the Academic Development & Quality Assurance Unit at Middlesex University.