Standards deviations, and suggested amendments to the Bill

Source: Hansard Society

I’ve written here before about the historical approaches to assuring academic standards but now things have become very real with definitions about to become written into law as the Higher Education and Research Bill moves through the Lords.

The Higher Education and Research Bill seeks to define standards but confuses standards with quality and lacks precision. Moreover, the Bill as currently drafted impacts on institutional autonomy, which carries a significant risk of undermining academic standards. Some changes would, therefore, be welcome, and are suggested below.

Defining standards

‘Have you ever thought, Headmaster, that your standards might perhaps be a little out of date?

‘Of course they’re out of date. Standards are always out of date. That is what makes them standards.’ (Alan Bennett, ‘Forty Years On’)

As Moodie (1986) puts it, a standard is a literal or metaphorical yardstick – in education a standard can be seen as a position on a spectrum, somewhere between good and bad. Criteria are the bases by which one judges the extent to which a particular standard is met, exceeded or fallen short of. Who judges, how such judgements are reached, and the confidence which can be placed in the process of judgement are crucial.

One of the main problems with the definition is that standards are frequently mixed up with criteria. Customary definitions of standards show a degree of circularity with the Chambers Dictionary definitions of standard being “a criterion: a definite level of excellence or adequacy required” and of a criterion “a means or standard of judging: a value, standard or canon”.

In education a standard can be seen as a position on a spectrum, somewhere between good and bad. The Quality Assurance Agency uses the following definitions:

Academic standards – the standards that individual degree-awarding bodies set and maintain for the award of their academic credit or qualifications. These may exceed the threshold academic standards. They include the standards of performance that a student needs to demonstrate to achieve a particular classification of a qualification, such as a first-class honours degree classification in a certain subject or the award of merit or distinction in a master’s degree.

Threshold academic standards – the minimum acceptable level of achievement that a student has to demonstrate to be eligible for the award of academic credit or a qualification.

Straight down the middle

The terminology is not terribly helpful and perhaps an easier way of looking at this is offered by Harvey (2006) who differentiates between the criteria embodied in standards as set (which he terms ‘quality standards’) and standards as achieved, as well as quality, using a golf analogy:

A quality standard is a fixed criterion, that specifies implicit or explicit expectations or norms. In golf, each course has a par score for each hole, which is the number of strokes that an accomplished player would be expected to take in normal conditions (in this analogy, the quality standard could also be described as a benchmark).

The actual score achieved by a player is equivalent to the standard of achievement, which may be more or less than the par score (quality standard) depending on the climatic conditions.

The standard is distinct from (although not entirely independent of) the quality of the play. A golfer may make excellent shots but is unlucky with the lie of the ball or is faced by very bad weather and so may not score well. Conversely, some poor quality play may result in lucky breaks and a good score.

Standards are set by academics (both individually and collectively, but at a subject rather than an institutional level) and achieved by students. Criteria are embodied in the standards set; standards are assessed, maintained and assured by professional academic staff. Unlike in golf though, the determination of scores achieved requires informed, expert professional academic judgement.

Assuring standards

To assure that standards are being appropriately set and achieved by students there is a need to trust the judgement of academic professionals and the range of proxies devised over many years to assure the legitimacy of their collective decisions.

Explicitness about standards though, which some argue is necessary for assurance, cannot, in itself, convince us that those standards are being achieved or are worthwhile achieving. For example, Lindop  in relation to public sector higher education in 1985:

the most reliable safeguard of standards is not external validation or any other outside control; it is the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community.

Reynolds (1986) argues that given this and the dependence on “the professionalism of the university teacher” there need to be regular reviews of provision, and this

within a framework of maximal university autonomy, constitutes the best guarantee of the maintenance of standards in British universities.

The Reynolds report (which has been covered before here) effectively accepted a suite of proxies for standards, including the external examiner system, underpinned by the notion of a self-critical academic community in which the examiners were both the arbiters of standards and the assurers (inevitable in a self-regulated system and where peer review is a critical feature).

By implication then, assuring standards, which are multi-dimensional, requires a suite of inter-related measures including: the external examiner system; the involvement of professional and statutory bodies; staff selection; the quality of academic staff appointed; the allocation of resources needed to provide facilities for education; the qualifications required of students; the procedures established within institutions for the approval, review and monitoring of courses; and the QAA framework. It is these things combined which provide the comfort that standards are being appropriately set and assured by institutions.

A quality assurance system, therefore, which is the way in which an institution satisfies itself that management is delivering standards, has three foci: standards of student achievement/experience; the creation of opportunities and the environment for the achievement of these; and the management of resources to enable quality to be achieved.

To be assured about academic standards we need a self-critical academic community, institutional autonomy and a set of proxy measures which, combined, offer the reassurance required that standards are being appropriately set and achieved.

The Higher Education and Research Bill as it stands contains some significant challenges to institutional autonomy and academic freedom. These need to be addressed to help with standards assurance. In addition, some amendments are needed to the ways in which standards are presented in the Bill. I would suggest the following amendments.

Suggested amendments to standards references in the Bill

Clause 13 – Other initial and ongoing registration conditions

Original version:

(1) The initial or ongoing registration conditions may, in particular, include—

(a) a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied);

….

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), “standards” means the standards used by an institution to ascertain the level of achievement attained by a student undertaking a higher education course provided by it.

Proposed text:

(1) The initial or ongoing registration conditions may, in particular, include—

(a) a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, standards set by the provider or achieved by its students (including requiring particular standards to be applied) or a condition relating to the quality of the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied);

….

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), “standards” means the academic standards used set by an institution and against which to ascertain the level of achievement attained by a student undertaking a higher education course provided by it is judged, in order to determine the award of a degree or other higher education qualification.

Clause 23 – Assessing the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education

Original version:

(1) The OfS may assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by English higher education providers.

(2) But the OfS must assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by—

(a) institutions who have applied to be registered in the register for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any initial registration condition applicable to them relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)), and

(b) registered higher education providers for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any ongoing registration condition of theirs relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)).

(3) “Standards” has the same meaning as in section 13(1)(a)

Proposed text:

(1) The OfS may assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the ways in which English higher education providers assure themselves of the standards they have set and their students have attained and the quality of the higher education provided. applied to, higher education provided by English higher education providers.

(2) But the OfS must assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the ways in which standards of higher education provided, attained by students and the quality of higher education standards applied to, higher education provided by—

(a) institutions who have applied to be registered in the register for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any initial registration condition applicable to them relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them ways in which English higher education providers assure themselves of the standards they have set and their students have attained and the quality of the higher education provided (see section 13(1)(a)), and

(b) registered higher education providers for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any ongoing registration condition of theirs relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them ways in which English higher education providers assure themselves of the standards they have set and their students have attained and the quality of the higher education provided (see section 13(1)(a)).

(3) “Standards” has the same meaning as in section 13(1)(a)

Other references to standards

There are several further references to standards in the Bill. Paragraphs 77(5) and 117(2)(a) together with Schedule 2 paragraph 2(3) and Schedule 4 paragraphs 2(5), 3(2)(b) and 5(3)(a) all refer to:

“the quality of,
and the standards applied to, higher education”

These should be replaced with

the ways in which English higher education providers assure themselves of the standards they have set and their students have attained and the quality of the higher education provided.

I hope that’s helpful.

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