This article is more than 1 year old

The truth about the QAA Subject Benchmarks

The QAA's chief executive, Vicki Stott, puts the record straight on Subject Benchmarks
This article is more than 1 year old

Vicki Stott is Chief Executive of QAA.

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.

11 responses to “The truth about the QAA Subject Benchmarks

  1. This is disingenuous nonsense. In practice benchmark statements are viewed as highly prescriptive and non-negotiable. They are taken and used in matrix-based tick box exercises and vigorously policed by course leadership teams. Before we know it, we will all be instructed to ensure that all of our modules comply (and I use that word advisedly) will all aspects of the benchmark, including those that are highly contested philosophically and politically. UK based academics need to leave our echo chamber to discover just how out of step we are with majority opinion on most of these matters and why we come across as slightly unhinged. The Mail, Telegraph, Times etc would not be publishing this material if there was no interest in it. Not so much shooting ourselves in the foot, but the head from close range. And then we wonder why politicians are suspicious of HE and our motives

    1. So instead you advocate designing university curricula according to the ‘majority opinion’ as conveyed by the Daily Mail, Telegraph, etc?

    2. I think it is your comment which is ‘disingenuous nonsense’. SBS are not check boxes and of the 5 universities in which I have worked since their inception in the early 2000s and examined/reviewed and many more with which I have worked over the years in curriculum development, your experience is not the general case. I would be amazed if academics were to take direction from the populist (right wing) press in this regard with more regard to the outcomes of a discussion of experienced academics/students/employers etc… Some courses work with very prescriptive PSRB requirements, which are an entirely different matter to the SBS and not the purpose for which they are designed and they are not subject to regulatory enforcement.

    3. How disappointing that your institution sees it that way. No wonder the unhinged observation seems accurate. I’ve lost count of the number of HEIs I’ve engaged with, and have enjoyed many an argument as to why an SBS or grouping of SBSs doesn’t quite fit the bill. It does rely on making a good argument to quality teams of course.

    4. “Before we know it”

      Well, the benchmarks have been around for twenty years and it hasn’t happened yet, so I don’t think you need to be too alarmed.

  2. Replying to J McVey I’m sorry if your institute uses the Subject Benchmark Statements as a tick box exercise. That is not how they should be used. Of course tick boxing seems to be the OfS way of working, but at its core the QAA’s direction are that the statements are there to capture sector wide understanding of a subject, not compliance.

  3. I am surprised by the QAA and DQB chief executive’s broad-brush attack on the readership rather than the article’s author or publisher.

    “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.”


    Daily Mail reader, academic, SBS panel member.

  4. Those QAA benchmarks do matter and will influence course content. For me the problem is that this is straying into the history of a given discipline and spending time applying a 21st century ethical view on particular elements of it. That time could be spent on the core content itself deepening students’ knowledge regardless of the source.

  5. It is entirely disingenuous of QAA to suggest they have so little influence. This is nothing more than back-tracking from a stance that was rightly criticised for being unduly prescriptive and ideological.

  6. For J and M: just to be clear the benchmarks are written by sector subject specialists (people who actually teach and assess this subject day in and day out) not the QAA itself.

    1. I’m aware of that, but they carry the imprimatur of QAA and are published by them. And presumably the authors are selected or approved by them. So I don’t really see your point. The benchmark statements are influential and it is not right to pretend otherwise.

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