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
Fletcher, Anthony, The Independent (London, England)
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. …