University History 1996

Article excerpt

Amidst all the sweeping developments and inevitable controversies surrounding the reorganisation of Higher Education in recent years, the discipline of history has been changing too. This is an on-going process that is still generating much debate. This broad survey of what is happening in Britain's history departments aims to point out some of these developments and the debates surrounding them and to look at the state of university history today.

Surely, the most contentious issue in history departments currently is over the Higher Education Funding Council's Quality Assessment initiative. Last year departments were assessed on their research. This year, and much more controversially, teaching is the subject of the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) exercise.

It would have been a safe bet beforehand to have predicted that those who did well out of the assessments would have welcomed the initiative, while those who were not singled out for praise would have condemned it. But this was not the case. Quality Assessment is almost as unpopular with the 'winners' as it is with the 'losers', with the way assessment was carried out cited as a major cause of upset.

One main source of irritation was that, despite their preparatory work, many history departments were not even visited by assessors. For Arthur Marwick at the Open University the Quality Assessment exercise was a 'complete travesty'. He argues that 'the Quality Assessors didn't come near us, didn't read any of our stuff and 'just reached an a priori judgement that we couldn't be better than "satisfactory" '. One Teaching Committee chairman, who understandably wishes to remain anonymous, went so far as to describe the exercise as 'bloody useless'.

Where universities are visited by assessors, grades are awarded on the basis of exam and degree results. For an institution like the Open University this is bound to be problematic. It does not 'screen' its students like other universities do. As it takes on students of mixed ability its degree results necessarily reflect this. This objection was also raised by Susan Tegel of the University of Hertfordshire, who pointed out that, 'assessing the quality of teaching did not seem to take into account the academic background of the student being taught'.

This is true of many other universities: outside of Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of other institutions, most universities accept students with a fairly broad range of academic abilities. To assess departments purely on degree results seems to punish unfairly those universities who do not allow themselves the luxury of taking only the most gifted students.

A related factor, pointed out by Martyn Bennett of Nottingham Trent University, is that 'the resource problems faced by many of the former polytechnics placed them at a grave disadvantage'. Susan Tegel concurs: 'resourcing [was] outside the remit but is not unrelated to the quality of teaching'. She goes on to highlight a complaint made by several others: 'we were not visited, but still had to expend a great deal of time and effort' -- on gathering statistical and other information.

The University of Glasgow also experienced the unwanted burden of time spent preparing for the assessment. According to David Bates, head of the medieval history department, 'the amount of work preparing for the visitation is horrendous'. And although he ultimately found the exercise a worthwhile one, in that it focuses departments' minds on what they teach and how, he still finds some of the procedures 'particularly subjective and unsystematic' and objects to the labelling of departments in terms of 'excellent', 'Satisfactory' and so on.

Even departments that received a grading of 'excellent', such as Swansea University, have their reservations. Muriel Chamberlain, speaking on behalf of the department, says that, although her university came out of the assessment well, 'we could see many flaws in it'. …