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Thursday, August 12, 2004

First Thoughts on HE Audit Culture

My Introduction to Quality Assurance

The title here is misleading. My first thoughts on HE Audit Culture tend be reactive and therefore 'unsuitable for a family newspaper', as journalists sometimes say. That said, the following 'further thoughts' start an ongoing series that will, from time to time, be appearing on this blog. As always your comments are appreciated. Designing new academic programmes has become a case of balancing three different priorities. The first of these, often forgotten in the rush to fulfil the other two criteria, is developing the content of a course or degree scheme.

Secondly, it is important to develop the student ‘learning experience’ or, to put it more specifically, to find appropriate ways to mediate the content. Thirdly, it is now important that delivery and assessment methods themselves become transparent, so that they can be measured in keeping with the present day ‘audit culture’ in higher education. [Editor's note: you decide on their 'real' importance.]

Depending on one’s perspectives (and politics), this third consideration can represent an encroachment on professional autonomy or a guarantee that public monies are used wisely (or some combination of the two). Thus Hefce’s Quality handbook introduces the purpose of self assessment exercises as being ‘to secure value from public investment’ (Hefce, 1996: 4). Under review here is some of the documentation from previous occasions when I have been involved in various review processes. By revisiting documentation I aim to perform main two tasks. The first of these is to map a developing discussion of pedagogic issues connected to accountability and audit. The second is to outline the kind of concerns which impact upon the delivery of new modules, particularly those which develop in the context of ‘critical vocationalism’ i.e. academic study which coincides with the development of professional skills.

I first encountered some of the key concerns of ‘audit culture’ when teaching in adult education. While a postgraduate student in the early 1990s I attended a conference in Sheffield which focused on educational provision for minority communities. I was struck by the claim that Britain had led the way in education in the 1960s, lost its way in the 1970s but had recently resurfaced as a world leader in educational measurement. I was unsure what it meant at the time, but when I began teaching full-time several years later the process was in full swing.

In some respects the recent invention of the term ‘audit culture’ is slightly misleading. An explicit discussion of measuring success and performance in higher education goes back to at least the 1970s (Anderson et al, 1975), in contrast to earlier accounts which take for granted the inculcation of specialist subject knowledge to students. However, when perusing the HE reference works of the 1970s, it is clear that a shift of emphasis has occurred. The contents of Anderson (ibid.) are primarily concerned with evaluating student performance, rather than that of those teaching. Even a section is headed ‘Institutional Evaluation’ (pp.202-205), it refers to setting the student a task of defining what it is that an institution does as a form of assessment. It is taken for granted that the tutor has the professional autonomy to go off and evaluate the work without external scrutiny.

Richmond Adult & Community College’s procedures seemed at first glance to be geared to registration and the associated paper trails. New staff teaching FEFC-funded courses (‘code 2’) were reminded to ensure that a completed Learning Agreement from every student; failure to do so would result in financial penalties being levied. The 1997-98 forms were used to compile information on entry level qualifications and target destinations on completion. In addition, students had to provide a signature to the effect that the tutor had adequately briefed them on educational opportunities. Such practices clearly anticipate current concerns over retention and employability, without using the terms as such. There is, however, little sense of the scope to use the Learning Agreement as an educational tool. Thus students in effect obtained a largely passive contractual arrangement from the institution, rather than using the device to develop a strategy to see through their own learning plans. This is despite the fact that in the classroom – and on field trips – they were expected to play a full role in discussions, presentations etc. Bearing in mind that much of RAC’s constituency tended to be mature learners, the bureaucratic function of learning agreements represents a missed opportunity.

The induction pack for part-time tutors helps to establish just why this was the case. On page 1 staff are reminded to obtain a signed SLA from each student in the first class; page 2 discusses the role of registers, primarily as a matter of fire safety but also their being ‘subject to inspection by LEA, OFSTED and FEFC inspectors and official audit procedures’. Much of the other advice continues in this administrative vein; new part-time tutors are assumed to know what they are doing with teaching but in need of advice on how to file a pay claim or take sick leave. As the structure of the staff handbook suggests, however, preparing to be audited properly is taken extremely seriously. (Little had changed by the time the 3rd edition of the Induction Pack appeared in September 1998.)

Aspects of my higher education career have included similar experiences, albeit in a different form. Teaching as a part-time tutor in American Studies at Middlesex University introduced me to several weeks of intensive preparation for Quality Assurance; by coincidence, a parallel process – the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) - was taking place in my fractional appointment at Brunel University at the same time.

Middlesex made this promise to its American Studies students: ‘If this course works as it should for you, you will experience a process of unlearning preconceptions you have casually picked up through your life, while you develop your own perception of American civilisation through rigorous and critical study’ (1997: 4, emphasis in the original). Some of this development would include students designing their own degree programme through a series of options, whether through majoring in American Studies or taking the single honours BA (Hons) United States Studies. As the team discovered during the QA process, we had to demonstrate an ability to make good on the promises contained within the student handbook. We also had to get used to the idea our comments were being noted. According to Hefce (1996): ‘Emerging judgements are refined and tested against as wide a range of evidence as possible, for example, views expressed in meetings by staff or students will be checked and tested against the written documentation provided’ (21). Long-term self-consciousness became an important survival technique.

On the surface, this was the Adult and Further Education context in the mid-late 1990s. Future posts will consider how this developed in later years, and why.

Works Cited

Anderson, Scarvia B. et al (1975) Encyclopedia of Educational Evaluation (San Francisco and London: Jossey-Bass Inc.) (Buy it here from Amazon)

Hefce Quality Assessment Division (1996), Assessor’s Handbook October 1996- September 1998 (Bristol: Hefce).

Middlesex University (1997), American Studies Handbook 1997/98 (London: Middlesex University Print Unit).

Richmond Adult and Community College (1997), Part-time tutor handbook: Induction Pack for Part-time Tutors (2nd edition)

Richmond Adult and Community College (1997), Part-time tutor handbook: Induction Pack for Part-time Tutors (3rd edition)


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