CUCD Conference Panel at the Classical Association, Lampeter 1998

  1. The Dearing Quality Agenda - Robin Jackson, QAA
  2. The Role of the Ancient Languages - Charlotte Rouché, KCL
  3. Discussion

For its annual panel at the Classical Association Conference, CUCD sought to bring together, under the heading of an interesting neologism born out of QAA's canvassing of national views on the nature of "graduate outcomes", a number of issues arising out of CUCD's recent QAA-funded survey of current practice in UK classical degree programmes. Dr Robin Jackson of the QAA spoke on "The Dearing Quality Agenda"; Christopher Rowe explained the background to the survey, its general findings, and some possible next stages (now subsumed and updated in the Chairman's Report earlier in this issue); and Charlotte Roueché discussed "The Role of the Ancient Languages", developing ideas aired in her 1997 article on this subject in Dialogos. Since the original article may not be readily accessible to all readers of the Bulletin - arguably the constituency to whom it is of greatest pertinence and interest - it is reprinted separately in this issue, by kind permission of the author and editors.

Thanks to Ed Bispham, Gillian Clark, John Davies, Lynn Fotheringham, Christopher Gill, Doug Lee, Stan Ireland, Alison Sharrock, and all whose contributions have eluded report.

I. The Dearing Quality Agenda

Robin Jackson, QAA

QAA was formed in 1997 to bring together the different QA bodies of the Universities and funding bodies. RJ is now moving to CVCP, "from the regulatory side to the lobbying side". There has been a shift in the wake of Dearing from quality to standards as the focus - away from the old TQA-style forms of evaluation, concerned with institutions' and departments' delivery of their own aims and claims, to a new emphasis on student experience and outcomes. Although students have benefited from the effects of the old mechanisms, those mechanisms have been cumbersome and expensive, involving much duplication of effort, and badly need streamlining. What Dearing did was to shift the focus unexpectedly strongly on to academic standards, suggesting a streamlined, lighter-touch assurance process if institutions could be clearer about what they offered.

In the light of this new approach, the Agency has recently published its own statement of what it proposes. The elements are three: specification of what we offer; new mechanisms of review; and public information. The first proposes a national framework of levels for programmes and awards at a qualifications level; at a subject level, groups will be set up in each subject to set up "subject benchmark information", 40-50 in total, generating national material about what's agreed about expectations of degrees in the subject. 3 pilot groups are under way, with a second wave imminent. There are also programme specifications proposed within that framework, so each degree would explain how its individual programme fits within the national framework. And there will be nationally-published codes of practice as well as qualifications, subjects, programmes.The Agency is working to a timetable of 2000-1, and it is not yet clear what happens to the tail end of TQA; Classics may yet escape TQA entirely, if we go straight into the new model. A periodic institutional review is still envisaged (every 5 years or so), but there will also be subject-based reviews of the health of the discipline by CUCD-like groups.

To this end, three pilot reviews (History, Chemistry, Law) are under way; Classics might be invited into the second wave around Christmas. Classics is the smallest of the 41 subject area groups proposed - all of Engineering, for example, being subsumed in a single group. The information produced is going to be at a fairly high level of generality: about standards, "graduateness", at the lowest level - the expectations for a 3rd class degree. The reason for the focus on this lower threshold is that the Agency wants to avoid normalisation of standards, but does want to assure that nobody falls below an acceptable minimum. The HEQC found the whole notion of thresholds problematic, and RJ's own view is that it will be quite hard for subject groups to define threshold standards; it may turn out that they propose "modal" rather than "threshold" standards (II.2 kinds of expectations). The focus is on the single-honours degree rather than modular, highly-flexibility programmes, despite the fact that the former are in decline against the latter.

On the vexed issue of external examiners, Dearing's proposal of a professional cadre was coldly received; the Agency has tried to adapt this sensibly, and proposes that the system continues as now, but with one examiner reporting to the Agency. There are problems perceived with even this watered-down version: conflict of interests (externals report to QAA, while at the same time being responsible for the subject and standards); codes of practice, institutional reviews and so on may deal with this, but the Agency consultation document itself proposes a different model, involving a new body. This is, however, a genuine consultation; there is a real opportunity to influence the Agency's thinking.

II. The Role of the Ancient Languages

Charlotte Rouché (King's College London)

Our experience of teaching language is changing: we are teaching larger groups, and the students' own school experience of language is different. They no longer "stay their eye" on the mechanism through which they're communicating; modern immersive language teaching no longer asks students to do that. For students to understand a language like English, we have to load them up with metalanguage; Thomas Arnold himself made the point that it is impossible to teach people philology through their own spoken language.

The designers of the courses are people who learned their classical languages at school. In mountaineering terms, the course designers are on Mt Olympus already, far remote from the actual beginners' language experience of the students themselves - most of whom realise in their second week that they will never get out of the foothills. We must believe there's a profound intrinsic value in the study of language; we are offering languages that are exceptionally clear in showing them the structure of how language works. Language has become much more important in the last 15 years, especially with the emergence of language as the model we use to understand the computer. What we now need is a very intelligent modern textbook with linguistic input that will enable students to emerge with a thorough grasp of the nature of an inflected language. Yet it is important that this should not take the form of a course where students simply write a general essay at the end of the year on what a verb is; the outcome must be that students should be able to use the language.

III. Discussion

Two particular features of Classics make the defining of thresholds and standards especially difficult in our case. The first is our high level of modularity. No UK Department has a complete "cafeteria" modularisation, but many offer a very wide, and potentially incoherent, plurality of disciplines which the student is empowered to combine very freely. (Some Departments insist on study across a certain number of disciplines, a model with much to be said for it.) The second feature is our use of multiple levels in language teaching, where Classics is unusual in offering many different language-attainment entrance levels and different outcome points for each.

Here a main thread in the discussion was the need to find an acceptable academic justification of the widespread pattern of a single year's classical language, which is then dropped. We need to be able to define an outcome in terms of key skills within our Classical degree programmes, for which a defence in terms of linguistic skills alone cannot suffice. It has to relate to other elements of the degree programme, such as elementary tasks in ancient-history source-handling. The strongest argument may be the one which stresses that what students will be doing in their second and third years will involve useful language.

We are not being asked to move to a single level; rather, what we need to do is to justify the present diversity of levels in a coherent framework. Beginners' language need not be confined to a single year, but institutions do need to legitimate diversity publicly and nationally. Schools, after all, have long been engaged in such a process of justification, and have much experience we can usefully share.

CUCD Bulletin 27 (1998)
© Council of University Classical Departments 1998

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