Response to the draft report and recommendations of the Graduate Standards Programme

The Quality Enhancement Group of HEQC has undertaken a programme of work seeking to clarify what are the unique characteristics of graduates, in order to aid the assurance of standards of first degrees. This response was to a draft report that followed extensive consultation of interested parties.

The Biochemical Society, with some 9500 members in academia, publicly funded bodies and industry, is a Learned Society that promotes the advancement of the science of Biochemistry, in active collaboration with other societies representing cellular and molecular life sciences. The Society concerns itself with all aspects of education and training of cellular and molecular life scientists, including curriculum development and teaching technology. It is particularly concerned that UK qualifications in the molecular life sciences should retain their international reputation. The Society approves the concept of further, or higher, education being available to all who can benefit, but is concerned that the recent rapid expansion in numbers admitted to degree courses has clouded the understanding of qualities and standards expected of a new graduate.

The Society is therefore pleased to respond to the recommendations of the Graduate Standards Programme.

CLARITY OF STANDARDS

1. Awards framework/typology of programmes

The Biochemical Society welcomes the recognition by HEQC that it is of fundamental importance to establish a descriptive awards framework to clarify the relationship between undergraduate awards at different levels (paragraph 179), and a typology of programmes (paragraph 180). The latter must indicate clearly entry requirements, type of course, and expected outcomes in terms of competencies.

The Society acknowledges the diversity of missions within the higher education (HE) sector but is concerned that this does not lead to too great a diversity of outcomes for students graduating with particular qualifications. It is essential that the academic level of the course, the course provision, and the range of competencies acquired, should be appropriate for the level of qualification being offered. Different titles may be needed to differentiate awards offered at different levels. Within the molecular life sciences there remains the need for reputable qualifications like the HND at a level suitable for technician entry to industry.

Within the framework, attempts should be made to develop a convention for titles of undergraduate awards that indicates clearly the level of qualification. Both the framework and typology of courses must be applied consistently across the HE sector. It is the responsibility of each institution to decide at what level to target its provision, and, in consultation with appropriate bodies, to place existing courses within the nationally agreed framework.

2. Range of expectations for particular qualifications

Defining the expected outcome for a particular level of course is an essential part of the process of establishing a programme framework (paragraph 178). Within related disciplines, such as the molecular life sciences, the Society considers that it would be possible to agree a series of outcome competencies for awards of different level. For example, a mini-survey conducted by the Society indicated a fair measure of consensus among heads of departments in assigning priorities within their own degree programmes to the different graduate attributes listed in annex F to the report. The Society recommends that HEQC moves ahead with consultation on expected competencies within an award framework, and would be pleased to collaborate.

If a student transcript system is adopted it should be possible to agree within related subject groupings a list of attributes or outcomes for each qualification on which a student should be graded. The Society is not confident that threshold standards could be defined in ways that are sufficiently unambiguous whilst being sufficiently tolerant of organic change, but this is less important in a transcript system that does not require the classification of honours.

3. Student transcripts

The Society believes that HE should develop the use of transcripts (paragraph 181). Used within a system in which institutions make explicit and publicly accessible the standards of attainment associated with particular awards (paragraph 177), student achievements and competencies can be made much more transparent with transcripts. These should be broken down not just by subject module but by important generic competency. The Society can envisage common forms of transcript for groups of related disciplines but is not sure that they can be uniform across HE. When knowledge and experience of transcripts has permeated HE there may no longer be the need for a Honours system of awards.

SECURITY AND COMPARABILITY OF STANDARDS

1. Internal and external examiners

The Society strongly approves the concept of formal training for internal and external examiners so as to facilitate development of judgements about standards (paragraph 183), and supports the recently-published guidelines on external examining practice (paragraph 185). It would encourage fora for internal examiners to include examiners from other institutions in order to strengthen peer judgement (paragraph 184). The Society would wish to be involved in organising fora to provide opportunities for external examiners to meet to discuss standards.

The published guidelines recommend that institutions should maintain policies that facilitate the nomination and selection of external examiners that are consistent with the institutional aims and purposes. There is a danger here that the examiner may be selected from only a subset of HE institutions, and there may be a case for more formal selection of external examiners. The Society made the same comment in relation to the composition of external review teams in its response to the report of the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance, being concerned about the possibility of fragmentation of quality assurance criteria. The sharing of good practice and innovation across the whole sector are important for facilitating continuous quality improvement.

2. Benchmarking

Departments across HE offering courses of the same level and type should be encouraged to collaborate to form networks within which consensus about standards operates. The Biochemical Society would encourage the benchmarking of assessment regulations and practice within these, in order to improve the bases for comparability of standards (paragraph 186). The Society does not accredit courses at present, but would be keen to help in other ways to articulate and under-pin standards (paragraph 188); for example by providing examples of, and commenting upon, good practice that it has observed, and as referred to previously.

THRESHOLD STANDARDS

As stated above, the Society has serious reservations about the concept of threshold standards. In a system of transcripts to describe achievements within a transparent typology of programme objectives and levels, the idea of threshold performance is largely redundant.


The Biochemical Society,
59 Portland Place,
London W1B 1QW;
Tel: 020 7580 5530; Fax: 020 7637 3626;
E-mail: genadmin@biochemistry.org