What are they doing to the English Benchmark Statement?

The QAA is currently in the process of rewriting the English Benchmark Statement, and is calling for comments. So far, though, this news has been met by deathly silence in the corridors of my department. Maybe my colleagues think the QAA will disappear: this, admittedly, is more possible than we might have thought just a few weeks ago. Maybe they just feel that this document has little impact on their lives. I expect I’m in a minority in having read it.

But it seems a significant enough moment in the history of a discipline that is not old, by many standards, and has changed greatly even in my own lifetime. The proposed version will constitute the document’s third edition, replacing the 2000 version (which was lightly revised in 2007). And while the Benchmark Statement was, and remains, a fairly broad and liberal-minded document, it has a significant role in defining what we do to the outside world. ‘Subject benchmark statements,’ in the QAA’s words, ‘describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas, and in respect of particular qualifications. They provide a picture of what graduates in a particular subject might reasonably be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their programme of study.’

I like the existing statement. It reflects the discipline as I know and love it. It leaves me with a warm feeling inside. Really. But I’m approaching the proposed version, I think, with an open mind. Change is inevitable: and there’s been an awful lot of change in the discipline and the UK HE sector since 2000.

So: to the document.

Who’s written it?

These things are written by committee. In 2000 there were six academics from (what are now) Russell Group universities, and nine others. This time there were four from the Russell Group and eleven others. So that’s less representation from the elite, while Oxbridge involvement has evaporated entirely (a move that feels a bit like an own-goal). The 2014 group also included non-academics: two QAA officers, an employers’ representative, and a student representative. Signs of the times there.

What do they say has changed?

  • ‘The imminent arrival for the first time of a Creative Writing Benchmark Statement has prompted some revisions.’
  • ‘More emphasis has been placed on the role and value of English within culture and society, and its international scope.’
  • ‘References to generic and subject-specific employability skills have been updated and enhanced, in response to feedback from a range of employers of English graduates.’

What, really, has changed?

  • Size. It’s about 40% shorter. I rather like the wordiness of the existing version, but anyone who’s tried referring to it at open days will attest that a trimming might make it more usable.
  • Words. So which words, in particular, are out, and which words are in?
    • Out go: imagination, problematise, interrogate, acumen, conceptual sophistication, openness of mind.
    • In come: commercial, economic, tourism, relevant to contemporary society.
  • Is it really, then, all about employability? But, before we jump to conclusions, let’s put those shifts into context. As a predominantly outward-facing document, for a £9000 world, fresh emphasis on the place of the discipline in the wider world was inevitable and necessary. And many of the changes strike me as excellent. The ‘graduate and generic skills’ section, for instance, has more bullet-points than 2000 but fewer words, making its powerful case in a concise and readable manner. But the ‘look at how relevant we are’ tone may grate on some readers. The second paragraph of the ‘defining principles’ section is a new statement devoted to our cultural and economic position. We are told, for instance, that: ‘The subject attracts international interest in the UK’s cultural heritage and creative industries, promoting tourism and other economic activity.’ Do we really see this as a ‘defining principle’ of what we do? And the assertion that our graduates can ‘look beyond the immediate task to the wider context, including the social and commercial effects of their work’ is well-meaning, but again perhaps bends over too far to argue for our relevance in the (private-sector) workplace.
  • What are we teaching? The sections on the content of our programmes are substantially consistent with the 2000 version. The fine paragraphs on the ‘nature and scope’ of an English degree, most notably, are barely changed at all. Ditto the commitment to students gaining ‘knowledge of writing from periods before 1800’, of ‘the range of principal literary genres across prose, poetry and drama’, and of the ‘breadth of literatures in English’. But I detect slight shifts of emphasis. There is perhaps a little less concern with interpreting texts in relation to contexts and ‘cultural norms’, and perhaps also rather less commitment to theory. The 2000 claim of ‘ability to interrogate different theoretical positions’, as a ‘generic’ skill, is gone. More explicitly, we lose ‘broad knowledge of the history and development of the English language’, which is surely bowing to undeniable changes across the country.

Conclusion: tourism in, problematizing out

I am of the problematizing generation: it’s what we saw as the business of an English degree. But I accept that times change, and equally that it may not strictly be necessary to wave our jargon around in a benchmark statement. I also accept that we need to be able to demonstrate to future students – and their parents, and their possible employers – how well an English degree will prepare them for the world. We have a story to tell, and we can’t tell it often enough.

So: I think I’d suggest a softening of tone here and there, but I can live with this benchmark statement. Indeed, for a student of texts and their contexts, it seems to me to say a lot about where we are.

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