Assessment issues arising from Subject Benchmarking Statements

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The idea of benchmarking

Benchmarking is a concept that has been taken up by public service organisations following its use in industry and commerce1. In brief, the general purpose of engaging in benchmarking exercises has been the improvement of processes, products and services. In some instances, benchmarking has been related to performances that are widely regarded as setting a measure of excellence, though not all benchmarking has to be related to outstanding exemplars. In higher education, colleagues have frequently – if often informally – compared data from their own institutions with those from others against which comparison has been felt to be potentially fruitful: this has been seen as one way in which enhancements can be stimulated. The greater availability of statistical data on a sectoral scale has made benchmarking easier in some respects: the performance indicators published by the funding councils (HEFCE, 2000) constitute a case in point, since data on – for example – completion are provided institution by institution and benchmark performances2 established. Any institution can therefore inquire why a similar institution has apparently performed better or worse than it has managed to do itself.
While there has been some experimentation in the use of process benchmarking to compare and evaluate academic practice in UK HE (see examples in Jackson, 1998 and Jackson and Lund, 2000) the idea of benchmarking is also being exploited in a different way in UK higher education. Regulation has come to the fore, with the intention being to use benchmarking to provide explicit standards against which institutions’ performances can be measured. Jackson (1998, p.5) observed that, in the context of the assurance of quality and standards in the UK, benchmarking might more appropriately be defined as
a learning process to facilitate the systematic comparison and evaluation of practice, process and performance to aid improvement and regulation.
The development, under the aegis of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education [QAA], of subject benchmark statements shifts the emphasis towards the regulatory end of this definition.

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