Thursday, September 16, 2010

Assessment, achievement, and the archaeology of university politics.

Robert Burgess, VC of the University of Leicester, gave the keynote at the second day of the iPed 2010 Conference in Coventry. He has for seven years been steering a process that seeks to revise assessment, degree classification and academic credit.

His overview of this seven-year process betrayed his evident weariness with the propensity of the Government, the media, and the sector to reduce the complexity of some of the issues into simplistic terms (such as the abolition of the Honours Degree Classification).

First, he outlined a familiar story; the nature of change in Higher Education over the last two decades. Key issues for assessment that arise from these changes include:

- move from elite to mass Higher Education system;
- changes in the sector, students, pedagogy, curriculum;
- robust international reputation of the Honours degree;
- increased personal investment in education from students (fees) requires a more transparent, robust and detailed record of what the student has a tautly achieved.

To respond to these and other imperatives, Burgess' review recommended the replacement of the Honours Classification System with a portfolio-like Higher Education Achievement Record. This would provide a more detailed record of student activities and strengths, down to the level of the type and nature of the individual assessment tasks completed. All very sensible stuff, if not rocket science.

However, as is typical in the political game of university education, Burgess was unable to persuade the sector to abolish the Honours classification system, thus the HEAR will be introduced in parallel with the existing classifications. Thus another archaeological stratum of practice is laid down on top of, but not replacing, the previous concepts and practices.

Why are universities so unable to clear away the artifacts and relics of previous practice to respond to changed circumstance? What has for decades seemed like a quaint and decorative fascination with tradition now threatens to make the relevance of many still-current university approaches to education genuinely questionable. Times have actually changed.

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