HEPI’s latest report Comparability of degree standards? published today (3 June 2010) discusses the longstanding UK attachment to comparability of degree standards and the pressures that have led some to question it. It was prompted in part by the attention devoted by the IUSS Select Committee to whether degree standards were comparable in different universities, but also by the more general focus on this and related questions in the press and political and policy discourse.
The report argues that real comparability – genuine equivalence in the standards of learning required of, and achieved by, students following any two different programmes of study at one or more institutions in the same or different subjects – is neither feasible nor desirable in the diverse mass system that we now have. The abilities of the students, the nature and aims of the programmes they follow, the means at the disposal of the institutions all vary so much that it makes no sense to seek ‘comparability’ of outcomes in any meaningful sense.
The report concludes, for example, that “Given the extraordinarily high previous educational attainment of students attending, say, Oxford or Cambridge, the substantially greater resources devoted to them, the greater intensity of study that they undergo, and other factors, it would in fact be a surprise if the outcomes of students from those universities were no higher than those of students from other universities who have far lower prior attainment, resources devoted to them, and so on.”
At the same time, the sector should ensure that every programme and award meets a minimum standard. The report sets out a number of ways in which this can be achieved, the key being a review of assessment practices across institutions on a subject or programme basis through disciplinary networks led by academic peers. The report stresses the importance of the sector clarifying its understanding of comparability if current moves to strengthen the national quality assurance system in England are to be effective.