QAA and ESD – a serious case of conceptual clarity disorder

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I've been reading the QAA's UK Quality Code for Higher Education, and commenting through its consultation process on Chapter B3: Learning and Teaching.   This followed a request to SHED-SHARE members:

The new UK Quality Code is a revision of the previous academic infrastructure that guides institutional teaching and learning policy as well as programme level curriculum development.  For the first time, the Code has a learning and teaching chapter which includes cross-cutting themes.  It is therefore important to take time to articulate the need and value of ESD becoming part of the sector level educational discourse and to communicate that this can make a difference to the student experience.

I noted the present instructional tense and responded.  Here's the gist of what I wrote:

I think B3 is an admirable document – in a timeless sort of way – and I certainly wish all this had been in place when I was an undergraduate.  Its timelessness seems a problem, however.

What is striking is the absence of any wider context.  The notion, for example, that the world faces a range of severe challenges (existential, many say) which threaten the quality of lives, the resilience of economies, the integrity of the biosphere, etc., and that UK HE has both responsibilities and agency here, is completely missing.  UK HE is presented as a bubble, and teaching and learning as an enclosed space within that, responsible unto itself – and the QAA.

Perhaps I overstate this?   There are, after all, 5 "themes which cross subject and discipline boundaries":

graduate attributes  / education for sustainability  /  civic responsibility / internationalization / enterprise and entrepreneurship

A few exploratory points, then:

1.  This list is such a grab-bag of curiosities that it's hard to think that much effort has gone into its compilation.  The list lacks coherence – conceptual or otherwise.  For example,

[i] what is "graduate attributes" doing in the same list as "civic responsibility"?  Indeed, what is graduate attributes doing there as a theme at all?

[ii] "civic responsibility" is an outcome and a value (and a component of most lists of graduate attributes), whereas "internationalisation" is a socio-cultural phenomenon that affects (and affected by) what universities do.

I could go on, ... .

2. For me, logically, the theme isn't "education for sustainability"; rather it has to be sustainable development as it is the need for this which provides the external stimulus / imperative for a response by HE.

3. Achieving the status of a cross-curricular theme is no great triumph, no matter how much it is talked up.  The point of being consigned to a C-CT is that it can be safely ignored – ask a generation of school environmental educators.

4. The text that accompanies the themes also seems a problem.  It says:

Higher education providers engage with a number of themes that cross subject and discipline boundaries and inform the design of learning and teaching activities and the currency of the curriculum.

But, "themes that ... inform the design of learning and teaching activities and [inform] the currency of the curriculum", seems inadequate phrasing.  I think this needs to refer to the "focus of the curriculum".  As, for example:

Higher education providers engage with a number of significant world issues that cross subject and discipline boundaries and which inform the focus of the curriculum, teaching design, and learning outcomes.

... and if the theme were sustainable development, then all this would make sense – conceptually and in curriculum terms.  There is still the small matter that it’s only a theme, however.

5. All this might be summarized as follows (apologies for some duplication):

There will be those who will ...

a. see this a welcome foot in the QAA door (a Trojan mouse)

b. find it hard to see why these themes are even there, given that the code is about quality not curriculum

c.  think that, if there are to be themes, then the logic is to see sustainable development as the theme, as it is the imperative of this that universities are urged to respond to.  Education for sustainability is one of several possible responses to that imperative.  To think otherwise is seriously to confuse means and ends.

d. deplore the insignificance of sustainability's being a mere "theme", especially as the theme list lacks coherence, and looks a bit of an add-on.

e. say that the idea of themes is a distraction, and that the important achievement would be an acknowledgement by QAA that the world now faces a range of severe challenges which threaten the quality of lives, the resilience of economies, the integrity of the biosphere, etc., and that UK HE has both responsibilities and agency here.

These are not mutually exclusive.  [a] might tend to foreclose debate.  I think [c] is right, but [d] / [e] is where I stand.

6. It's not clear where best to make the over-arching point [e], though Section C of the Code, which sets out Indicators of Sound Practice, seems a likely place.  Here, Indicator 1 says:

Higher education providers publish information that describes their mission, values and overall strategy

But Section C is not currently subject to consultation.  A pity.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates


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  • I am told that some regard the points made in this post as inappropriate. Apparently, the correct response goes something like this ...

    "Great to see the QAA taking ESD on board. Well done to all those who worked hard with QAA to make this possible."

    I'm glad to set the record straight, and am off to sit on the naughty step, where I may find my 3 year old granddaughter who gets sent there for much the same reasons – mercifully, though, she's not heard of the QAA.