The grip tightens on universities. Last week the body which monitors the quality of higher education published details of the standards it expects students to achieve in 22 subjects along with a new method for reviewing them. Standards in another 20 subjects will be developed over the coming year.
The good news is that for the first time students, their parents and employers will be able to see what a degree in history or law or engineering is about and what a graduate should know and be able to do. All that will be spelt out at a conference on the new standards to be addressed by Tessa Blackstone, the minister responsible for higher education, later this month.
The bad news is that many academics and higher education commentators think the exercise stinks. One critic, Professor Anthony Fletcher, of Essex University, believes it's the first step on the road to a national curriculum of skills. Reading the lists of standards (see box right), however, they seem impossibly bland.
"The whole thing is a complete and total waste of time in terms of doing anything useful for anyone," says Professor Alison Wolf, of London's Institute for Education. "But it will do useful things for the paper wholesale industry. There's a large amount of paperwork involved in this kind of thing."
Even academics involved in developing the new benchmark standards have their doubts. "I think the benchmarking is an attempt to do something which is difficult," says Kel Fidler, professor of electronics at York University and a member of the engineering benchmarking group. "If you're too specific, you drive the country towards a national curriculum - and we all champion diversity. If you make the standards too generic, they become like cotton wool."
Professor Fidler is one of those who believes we need to improve standards in higher education. Lord Dearing, in his report on higher education, thought so too. Students need to know what is required of them, he said. "There is national concern about the maintenance of standards of achievement at all levels of education."
Therefore, Lord Dearing recommended the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) appoint teams of academics to develop benchmark standards. That is what it has done. Not all the academics are sceptical. Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, who helped to develop the standards for degrees in business and management, says it was a useful exercise. He believes his group found a middle way between being too prescriptive and being so general as to be bland.
"It will be useful for students, parents and employers who are perhaps a bit bemused by higher education and the thousands of different degrees," he says. "You have a pretty transparent system now which is what everyone wants."
Some commentators think that specifying standards in higher education is an almost forlorn task. Dr Roger Brown, Director of Southampton Institute and the man who used to run the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, says: "How can you specify standards in advance in writing as opposed to getting your standard from what the student achieves?"
He also wonders how the new standards framework gets around the problem of our diverse system which has ancient universities such as Oxford and Cambridge jostling with redbricks and plate-glass as well as former polytechnics and colleges of higher education.
Professor Ron Barnett, of the Institute of Education, agrees. "I am concerned to ensure that we have flexible responses and a diverse system of higher education appropriate for the 21st century," he explains. "It's not clear to me that a central agency expecting everyone to operate to the same standards is going to produce that. We might be coerced into doing something very uniform and very rigid."
Although the new universities look upon the QAA more favourably than the old because it enables them to shine in teaching, they are worried about the new benchmark standards. Dr Michael Goldstein, Vice- chancellor of Coventry University, says the QAA doesn't understand what modern higher education looks like. "The standards exercise is subject based," he says. "But a lot of higher education is not subject based, it's activity or professionally based. You still have degrees in English or maths or history or chemistry but my own view is they will become increasingly irrelevant."
Like other new universities Coventry offers degrees that cut across subject boundaries such as environmental or pharmaceutical chemistry. Professor Goldstein asks how the subject benchmarking applies to them or to the modular degrees where students stitch together a bigger menu of subjects.
The QAA asked the groups of experts to produce checklists of standards in each subject. Professor Fletcher, who chaired the history group, refused to do that. He says: "Our fear is that this could be used to check on students' achievement. That could reduce higher education to a very mechanistic business."
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) is worried the new standards will provoke argument. Paul Cottrell, AUT assistant general secretary, asks how they fit in with external examiners. "What happens if there's a disagreement between the QAA reviewers and the external examiners?" he asks.
Also published last week was the handbook setting out the new methodology for reviewing quality and standards in universities and colleges. That replaces the old system which used to give them a score out of 24. In future, institutions will be subject to judgements. For learning opportunities, for example, they will be judged to be either commendable, approved or failing.
The new system is a compromise born of a meeting in the House of Lords tea room between the two baronesses, Tessa Blackstone and Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. They met some vice-chancellors to break an impasse that had developed. Many vice-chancellors don't like the compromise any more than the old numerical system. Their argument is that the words can still be turned into numbers and used by journalists to concoct league tables.
But the QAA argues that it is removing a lot of the bureaucracy. Currently, academics have to accumulate roomfuls of bumf to meet the Agency's requirements. In future, some institutions will be monitored more lightly than others and reviews will no longer be concentrated into a single week but spread intermittently over a longer period. Critics are, however, sceptical that the new system will reduce the administrative burden on institutions.
According to Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, we are obsessed as a nation with accountability. But writing down what you think you mean by standards does not capture the essence of a brilliant lecture. "What you are looking for is over and above what you can convey in a set of standards or a form of words," he says. "The QAA is chasing the end of the accountability rainbow. The closer it comes to it the more elusive quality seems to be."
Paper statements about standards don't translate into anything, says Professor Wolf. You come back a year later to check up on what has happened and you find people are doing things as differently as they were before.
The Government, employers, students and parents may not agree with these criticisms. John Randall, QAA Chief Executive, certainly doesn't. Arguing that suggestions of a national curriculum are "total nonsense", he says the statements published last week have captured what standards are about. The whole exercise has forced academics to open the door into the secret garden of the university curriculum, according to QAA sources. Students should get a slightly better idea of what is entailed in a degree. More to the point, they will be able to ask questions of their teachers once they reach university - and base those questions on what they had been expecting to be taught.
The conference 'Benchmarking: Academic standards' is at New Connaught Rooms, London WC2, on 17 May. Speakers include Baroness Blackstone, Lord Dearing, John Randall. For details ring 020 7453 5499
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