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Subject benchmark statements and the requirements of professional, statutory or regulatory bodies; do external reference points for courses inhibit innovation and creativity?

Laura Bellingham, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)

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‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things’ (John Masefield during an address at the University of Sheffield in 1946). These words were encapsulated in the 1997 Dearing report, the result of the National Committee of Enquiry that set out new initiatives for higher education. While seeking to commend and uphold universities as places of learning with associated values of “developing the powers of the mind”, shaping the nation’s “social, moral and spiritual life” and “enabling personal development for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole” the report expressed its concern that universities continue to be able to engage in an internationally competitive market for employment, training and technology transfer which requires public confidence in the standards of awards and the quality of the learning experience made available to students. Thus followed a renewed engagement with institutional audit and review, and the introduction of a series of ‘tools’ aimed at securing confidence in standards of learning and teaching delivery. Some ten years on, what value or purpose have such initiatives served? Does the administrative burden associated with the pursuit of external (and internal) quality assurance mean that time and resources have been taken away from maintaining the very values that the Dearing report sought to uphold? Is it possible to harmonise the pursuit of creativity, innovation and excellence in learning and teaching with assuring public confidence and accountability in the standards of awards being delivered in universities and the abilities and skills being fostered in graduates entering local, national and international markets for employment and training? In line with the particular audience, the presentation takes as its focus the existence of subject benchmark statements for individual disciplines in exploring some of the questions outlined above. Also considered is whether the requirements set down by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies for certain disciplines present a barrier to creativity and innovation.

Author Bio(s)

Educated in Bristol I went on to study Zoology at Cardiff University (1993–1996). Undertook a Ph.D in Animal Behaviour at the University of Liverpool from 1998–2002. After some part-time lecturing of biology and psychology undergraduates at Liverpool, went on to take up a full-time lectureship at Nottingham Trent University delivering modules as part of undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Wildlife Conservation. Upon returning to the South-West, I accepted a full-time position within the Development and Enhancement Group at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) where I am currently responsible for policy development relating to subject benchmark statements. My full CV includes time spent undertaking research in animal behaviour, welfare and conservation at several leading zoos, which has fostered my interest in public understanding of science and the importance of bridging the gap between formal science education and the communication of science and natural history to a non-specialist audience.