A standard each? Not the way forward…

I was pleased to note that David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, took the opportunity at a recent event on university-industry links to support the adoption of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR). The report goes beyond the traditional transcript, providing details of the modules or units studied (including information such as how the unit was assessed, whether the module contained elements of group working etc) as well as information about additional activities individual students may get involved in. These can include additional study, participation in university or student union societies and volunteering (say to work on charitable activities). The HEAR is issued by the institution and consequently the additional activities are validated by the institution. The purpose is to give a more complete picture of the individual, to highlight areas of strength which may be of as much interest to prospective employers as their academic grade. The Government are looking to encourage employers to use the HEAR to look at more than just the academic achievement when considering taking on graduates.

So support from the Government and support too from the sector at large – the HEAR has been implemented in ninety institutions, although not necessarily across the whole academic portfolio in each. Nevertheless, I believe that this is a positive in that institutions recognise that this is the direction to travel. The HEAR, which is not currently mandated, seems to have been welcomed with more enthusiasm than some of the mandatory transcript related reports that have emerged out of the Bologna Process. This is probably in part because few UK students seek to integrate study at European institutions into their programme (and so the Diploma Supplement is seen as an overhead) and partly because the sector has been able to recognise the benefits that the HEAR may offer graduates.

Clearly such a report will draw on a range of information sources within an institution. It is important that, in order to achieve economies of scale, that there is clarity about what is to be included within the report and the format it should take. So it is pleasing to note that the JISC have been involved in the process, have established a standard for the HEAR and have engaged with a number of suppliers (through institutions) to pilot the HEAR in institutions. All positive so far but there is a cloud on the horizon.

I was at a meeting last week when the topic of the HEAR was raised. It was disappointing to hear that whilst most, if not all, institutions around the table were providing a HEAR like report to their undergraduates, it was just that – HEAR like. There was no dissent from the view that ‘the standard is fine for the basic content but isn’t a perfect fit for every institution so we’re developing a variation’.

This is of concern on two counts. Firstly a lack of standardisation across the sector will lead to confusion amongst employers. It won’t be apparent to them whether items that are present in the HEAR for students from one institution but not another are missing because the second institution doesn’t offer the opportunities detailed or because they aren’t included in that institution’s interpretation of ‘the standard’. Without consistency there is a risk of the HEAR falling into disrepute and an opportunity will have been lost. Secondly, there is clearly additional effort (and hence cost) to produce these variations. Suppliers may have invested time in developing reports that meet the standard only for these to be customised for local use.

The level of adoption suggests that the HEAR is recognised as being beneficial to graduates particularly as it surfaces skills and achievements that might not be immediately apparent from a standard transcript. A standard exists but it is being used as a base for the report rather than being used entirely for the report itself. This is perhaps the problem with a standard that is not mandatory – institutions will always find areas where it doesn’t meet their needs because they are somehow ‘different’. Consequently a variety of HEARs will exist and employers will complain about the lack of standardisation. Standardisation is key, not just to the HEAR but for any chance of shared services being adopted on a wide scale across the sector. Perhaps the route forward is to establish a core set of data for the HEAR and then permissible additions. But the standard will need to be adopted and enforced by an agency such as HESA in order to be accepted as a consistent document by employers. Without that its true value may be lost.

Footnote: I’d like to stress that no criticism of my colleagues at the JISC is intended. Establishing standards in this sector is challenging and believe that JISC have achieved much in putting together a standard for the HEAR. There is a lot of good work going on to establish mechanisms for delivering HEARs and other documents. I hope that I might have stumbled across a particularly errant group and that this post will be proved inaccurate quickly. However, I have a nagging feeling that it won’t be.

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