Given the increasing momentum of the war on woke, particularly as directed towards the higher education sector and organisations within it, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the Quality Assurance Agency became the next target.
Predictably but nonetheless frustratingly, coverage in the Daily Mail, and some other outlets, gives a wildly misleading portrayal of the truth.
Suffice to say that we’re not expecting Mail readers to flock to this article – trying to persuade many of them of the facts is a waste of time and energy because it doesn’t fit their narrative. But we believe it’s important to state our position publicly, nonetheless.
What is a benchmark statement?
Subject Benchmark Statements are a useful tool in supporting academics to update and design courses in line with recent academic thinking. They are written by expert advisory groups composed of people working within the subject discipline in question. The members of those groups are both knowledgeable and dedicated, and their work in updating the statements regularly is a valued contribution to the development of academic provision.
They are also a diverse group of people, and inevitably have a variety of views on political matters. It is a stream of work we’re very proud to be able to facilitate and a classic example of something created by the sector, for the sector.
Contrary to how the coverage frames it, the Statements are not mandatory. If academics disagree with their content, they do not have to use that content in developing their courses. That is the basic tenet of academic freedom, something core to both our work and the sector’s, and mandatory statements would infringe institutional autonomy. Moreover, the process of updating the Statements is deliberately designed to be open and consultative, giving other academics in the sector the chance to input into their final draft.
The use of experts
QAA is not a “watchdog” in any sense of that word. The Subject Benchmark Statement activity sits within QAA’s role as the sector’s expert body on quality and standards, funded through membership. As such, it is entirely separate from QAA’s current role as the Designated Quality Body in England. In that role, we carry out quality assessments at the request of, and in support of, the Office for Students. The OfS have been very clear in their comments in the Mail and elsewhere that the Subject Benchmark Statements do not form part of the regulatory framework or conditions of registration in England.
When defending oneself against the ‘war on woke’, it’s tempting to water down one’s own values and principles to lessen the intensity of the scrutiny. This might spare us some painful media caricatures – but it would not be the act of an agency with integrity and with a commitment to freedom of speech.
So let’s be abundantly clear. QAA believes equality, diversity and inclusion is important. Supporting providers to grapple with how to embed inclusive practice into their curriculum is part of that. There is no inconsistency in advocating both for inclusive practice and for academic freedom – indeed they go hand in hand. That level of nuance might not lend itself to a tabloid headline, but it is a stance that the higher education sector as a whole should own.
Time will tell whether this coverage is merely the latest flash in the pan in a “war on woke”, or whether the piercing glare we’re currently under is here to stay. But I think it’s safe to say that just in the same way we weren’t the first target in the sector, we’re unlikely to be the last.