Conformity or improvement? : subject benchmarking in some subject areas in some universities
This study takes as its starting point the recommendation of the National Committee into Higher Education (1997) that the Quality Assurance Agency should establish a system providing benchmark information on standards operating within the qualifications framework in UK higher education. The introduction of subject benchmarking led to fears of increased external intervention in the activities of universities and a more restrictive view of institutional autonomy, accompanied by an undermining of the academic profession, particularly through the perceived threat of the introduction of a national curriculum for higher education. The study situates subject benchmarking in the context of a potentially changing identity for UK higher education, which some observers see as dominated by a growing lack of trust in universities and university professionals on the part of government and articulated through the increasingly prevalent use of performance indicators requiring institutions and individuals to conform to externally imposed norms. The various requirements of the Quality Assurance Agency, including, therefore, subject benchmarks are seen by some as threatening diversity by enforcing conformity. After a consideration of the literature on various aspects of this context, and in particular of the benchmarking principle, the findings of an empirical investigation are presented in which higher education professionals in chemistry, history and quality assurance were asked about their perceptions of subject benchmarking and its impact. The investigation did not bear out the fears articulated at the inception of subject benchmarking. Furthermore, the investigation showed that subject benchmarking was perceived as having none of the characteristics normally associated with a benchmarking system; in particular, it was not perceived as leading to improvement. Finally, observations are offered on the way forward for subject benchmarking, and areas are suggested for further research.