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QAA subject benchmarks, or why the subject of a course defines the course of a subject

The QAA's Alison Felce sets out how benchmarking means we can be sure what students are studying.
This article is more than 5 years old

Alison Felce is a Standards and Frameworks Officer for the Quality Assurance Agency for UK Higher Education (QAA).

What does it mean to have a degree in, say, economics?

It sounds like an easy question. It means you’ve studied economics, passed enough assignments in the subject to get the credits you needed, and a university (or other organisation with the right to award a degree) has deemed you worthy to call yourself an economics graduate.

But scratch the surface, and it’s a little more complicated than that. How far can a programme stretch the boundaries of a subject area before others in a subject community and a profession start to question its inclusion? How can two universities – autonomous though they may be – offer two degrees with content so different, but with the same title?

Defining expectations

With the current spotlight on the increase in first and upper second class, it’s also clear that there is a public appetite for universities to better explain what and how students are learning, and to be able to compare programmes from different institutions with confidence. We can and should embrace innovation and difference. But a shared starting point with a few fundamentals helps to create a sense of identity for a subject, and better tells its story beyond the corridors of the faculty building.

This is where the subject benchmark statements can play a role. They are perhaps QAA’s best kept secret. A suite of over 80 documents, from Accounting to Youth and Community Work, previously tucked away within Part A of the old Quality Code, they lay out the nature of often quite technical subjects in an easy to understand way for both academics and quality staff. They offer a vital touchstone to providers looking to construct new programmes, and to people looking to benchmark what they currently offer against norms agreed by UK-wide subject communities and professional bodies.

Critically, especially given the aforementioned scrutiny universities are under for so-called grade inflation (perceived or otherwise), they show the minimum expectations of the knowledge and skills a student needs in order to graduate. They are key in supporting how academics and professional staff design, review and validate degree courses. They are also critical touch points for professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) when setting their content and outcomes requirements. That’s probably why, hidden as they may have been to the wider public consciousness, they’re by far the most frequently downloaded of all the QAA’s documents

Expecting definitions

At QAA, we’re embarking on a project to review and, if needed, update the subject benchmark statements. Although it’s only been two years after the last review of most of the statements, after the work to produce the fully revised Quality Code in 2018, reviewing the information that supports the Code is a logical next step. There’s also a wide range of styles, both in visual and voice terms, across the statements. So, reviewing, revising and generally making sure the family of statements are fit for the future is no small task.

Subject benchmark statements have always been led by the sector, and that will remain a key feature of our approach. We will continue to appoint Chairs for review groups, but then the Chair will select group members with our input, rather than the other way around. We’ll still seek members from PSRBs, employers and industry, and collaborate closely with the groups once they’re up and running. Student involvement will be extended, with a former student sitting on the group rather than providing written comments on a draft.

In the short term we will be making some minor changes through a quicker process, where the previous chairs of review groups will check updated references to the new Quality Code and advice and guidance documents. This should be completed before the end of 2019.

Members rules

We’re embarking on this project as QAA introduces a new funding model for our non-regulatory work. In England, our work with the Office for Students to quality assess regulated higher education providers is tightly defined. Income from our designated quality body fee will not cross subsidise other areas of our work. Instead, our collaborative work to support the enhancement of higher education beyond a regulatory minimum will be wholly member funded.

In this context, our proposed new membership model will allow us to continue to maintain and review subject benchmark statements on behalf of the subject communities that shape them. But it presents a dilemma that did not previously exist. Now that subject benchmarks – and indeed other QAA-published guidance – are to be wholly funded by our member universities and colleges, is it right to have them on public display for the benefit of organisations that haven’t contributed to, or paid for, their development? Public statements about the shape of a degree in a given subject might help to improve public trust in our universities – but is that financially sustainable, or does it do a disservice to the universities and colleges with whom we collaborate?

We’re asking QAA members what they think by way of a survey, and we hope to confirm exactly how we will publish subject benchmark statements later in the summer. In a changed regulatory and financial environment, as HESA’s Paul Clark reflected when he wrote for Wonkhe recently, it’s important that we seek the views of our membership on the work that we do on their behalf.

It’s an important debate, but, irrespective of the outcome, there’s a lot to get through. The work to get the subject benchmark statements up to date will continue at a pace. So sit tight – if you’re an academic you may get a call from one of our friendly Chairs asking you to help shape the identity of an entire subject area.

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