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May-June 2011

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Academic Standards: The British Experience

Although many of the recommendations in A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (the Spellings Commission report) have still to be implemented, policy makers' insistence that American colleges and universities measure student learning outcomes in a way that permits comparisons seems unlikely to go away. Nor does the recommendation that surfaced in the meetings following the report's release — that accrediting agencies should start insisting on at least minimal standards for graduation — seem likely to disappear, especially given the development of common standards for K-12 described by Kati Haycock in the July/August 2010 issue of Change.

Proponents of the recommendations argue that being able to compare the learning outcomes of various colleges and universities enables those institutions to improve and students to make informed choices, and that common standards will clarify what it means to earn a college degree. Meanwhile, opponents argue that institutions are too diverse to compare and that common standards are either impossible to develop or not useful, as well as an infringement of institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Nevertheless, these concerns and pressures seem unlikely to abate. Does the British experience offer a possible means of squaring this particular circle?

This article begins by outlining the British approach to quality assurance. It describes challenges to the system that surfaced in the mid-90s and the institutions' responses to them. It then looks at the further challenges that have arisen with marketization, challenges that can be expected to intensify when what is in effect a voucher system for funding university teaching is introduced in 2012. It concludes by sketching out a reform program that attempts to put academic control of standards on a more secure and professional footing and that may also be of some relevance to the US.

Roger Brown ( is professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, and before that he served as chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council. His book, Higher Education and the Market (Routledge, 2010), is a survey of the worldwide marketization of higher education.

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