The continuing value of subject benchmark statements

As the Quality Assurance Agency publishes a set of 13 refreshed subject benchmark statements, Andy Smith and Laura Sperry consider the value these documents bring to the UK sector

Andy Smith is Quality and Standards Manager at QAA

Laura Sperry is Membership Support Manager at QAA

Since their first publication nearly a quarter of a century ago, subject benchmark statements have become the standard reference points and go-to resources used by higher education providers for the design, development and delivery of courses across the UK, setting out a bedrock of shared expectations that are considered during programme approval and revisited during programme review.

Each subject benchmark statement (SBS) articulates the purposes and distinctive features of a degree in a particular discipline, approaches to content, teaching, learning and assessment, and the knowledge, understanding and skills which graduates are expected to be able to demonstrate.

Over the course of twenty-four years – and perhaps especially through times of increasing turbulence and divergence for UK higher education – these statements have accrued degrees of both authority and affection which reflect the effort committed to their production by stakeholders across, and beyond, the sector.

Collective ownership

An approach based on consultation and representation remains key to the contribution and impact of this work. A subject benchmark statement isn’t about imposing a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s not about trying to prescribe a national curriculum. It’s about agreeing a set of guidelines which help educators establish thresholds of consistency in relation to the academic standards, quality, values, aims and expectations of their provision, in line with the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications in the UK.

Each statement is owned by its subject specialists. It is created by an advisory group comprising not only academic experts from across the sector and from across the UK, but also student, industry and professional body representatives, in order to promote a balanced representation of the diverse range of perspectives, voices and approaches which underpin the richness of each discipline.

It gives prospective students and employers an understanding of the skills and prospects of graduates of a particular discipline. It helps to align provision with the requirements of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies and supports educators in the planning, design, delivery and enhancement of their programmes. For those creating new courses, it offers to serve as a map to their destination – it gives educators both confidence and flexibility through the benefit of their peers’ knowledge and understanding, as it recognises that you can take a variety of routes to get where you need to be.

On the map

A subject benchmark statement is a map that needs to be open to the dynamic developments in the professional, technological and social landscapes in which its discipline operates. It has to anticipate and accommodate contexts of change, challenge, innovation and opportunity, and to be future-proofed for at least half a decade.

It doesn’t just outline effective practice in assessment, learning and teaching methods, and the specificities of subject content and graduate attributes. Perhaps most importantly, it allows academic disciplines to articulate to themselves and to the world, in a time of constrained resources and external pressures, the focus of their work, the value that they give their students, and their broader economic, industrial, cultural and social impacts.

This may well be the reason why members of advisory groups commit so much effort and energy to their subject benchmark statement’s creation. Their passion for these subjects shines through their work, and it seems very clear that they want their readers to be passionate about them too. And that may, in turn, be one of the reasons why, perhaps surprisingly, so many people have come to treasure them.

Funded through QAA membership, each statement is available on QAA’s website for all providers and programmes to use as a public statement of the sector’s own expectations of quality and standards for a discipline. It’s a guidance document written by and for the subject experts, designed to underpin the identity and currency of an area of provision. It’s a set of reference points which may act as an anchor and a compass, both reinforcing a shared understanding of the essential characteristics of a discipline and promoting routes for its ongoing growth and development. Each statement is accompanied by a summary intended for a wider audience – for example, students, parents and lay members of governing bodies.

More manifesto than manifest

At a time when many programmes find themselves having to meet unprecedented demands with limited resources, while negotiating the challenges posed by sometimes unsympathetic external environments, a statement represents a covenant with stakeholders and with the sector about the quality and value of its subject. As such, it offers an articulation of assurance and confidence which both celebrates and helps to sustain academic diversity and institutional autonomy.

Given the stresses and constraints that the UK higher education sector currently faces, each SBS offers a mechanism which reiterates and reinforces the public and sectoral understanding of its discipline, and which expresses a collective sense of purpose to its own practitioners.

Perhaps more like a manifesto than a manifest, it offers not only a snapshot of a subject’s distinctive features and its graduates’ attributes but also a strengthening vision of its ethos, its aspirations and its raison d’être in an increasingly pressured academic environment and a fast-changing world.

One response to “The continuing value of subject benchmark statements

  1. Thank you, I very much agree with the importance of subject benchmark statements. Is there a web link to the legacy benchmark statements so that additions and changes in the updated statements can be identified?

Leave a Reply