Archaeology and `QAA Subject Review': What Did We Learn? (News & Notes)

Article excerpt

In the middle of March 2002, with the last review of a Department of Archaeology in England, the process of assessing the quality of academic courses by Subject Specialist Reviewers (SSRs) appointed by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) came to a temporary halt. The programme of reviews has been in existence since 1991 and, as it happens, archaeology was one of the last subjects to be reviewed--though it was assessed in Welsh universities as long ago as 1995-96, and in Scotland the process is continuing, with archaeology yet to be done. The editors of ANTIQUITY have already drawn attention to the process in an editorial (Malone 2000: 741).

The process in England and Northern Ireland started in September 2000 with Cambridge and concluded in March 2002 with Southampton. All archaeology staff in English universities and in Queen's University Belfast have been living with the `subject review', formerly `teaching quality assessment' or TQA, for the last 18 months, as have those in other subject areas since 1991. In this article, we want to cast an eye back on the experience. We were both trained as SSRs and both had much to do with the review of our own Department, and took part in seven reviews of other departments, as well as being called in to offer some guidance to others. While we had mixed feelings about taking part in the process, we learnt a lot from the experience.

The purpose of this article is to describe the process of subject review, and ask the question: what have we (by which we mean the wider academic community within archaeology) learnt from the experience? We are conscious, also, that academic archaeologists in other countries around the world may well face similar experiences in the near future. Will the British experience be mirrored elsewhere, or will others find different ways of dealing with issues of quality and accountability? We want to stress that the views expressed here are personal ones, and do not necessarily reflect the views of other reviewers--though our experience suggests that many of them are in fact shared by the rest of the team. What is written here certainly does not reflect the official views of the QAA: it will become apparent below that we have both positive and negative critical comments to make on that organization, the methodologies it has developed and related developments in higher education as a whole.


The assessment of the quality of education in particular departments is a process that had its origins in the Thatcherite years of the 1980s and early 1990s. Conservative politicians were fond of pronouncing on the need for accountability among all public sector services, to ensure that `taxpayers' money was well spent'. Specifically, the reforms of the Thatcher governments were intended to introduce market principles into public institutions, though this principle was never really introduced far into universities on the student front--rather the reverse, with the amalgamation of the `old' and `new' university sectors in 1992. A raft of regulatory requirements were imposed on education, health and local councils, and universities got their share, initially as a consequence of a deal struck with the lecturers' unions over pay. Many of these related to financial and management audits, but for academics on the ground two were of primary importance: the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA).

Few things have brought about as much apprehension, indeed terror, in higher education as the prospect of `inspectors' sitting in on lectures and tutorials and the thought of outsiders riffling through filing cabinets of critical examiners reports, imperfectly written (or absent) minutes of meetings, accounts of student complaints and the like. Strong men and women have blanched, shed tears or both, as the potential implications of a TQA visitation sank in and as the scare stories and Chinese whispers circulated (Halstead 2001 gives a graphic description of one department in turmoil). …