The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is a UK body, “an independent charity working to benefit students and higher education”. QAA proposes and checks upon standards for higher education, with some degree of authority. In September, QAA released for public consultation its revised Subject Benchmark Statement on Mathematics, Statistics and Operational Research (MSOR). Compared to the 2019 Statement, the 2022 draft Statement has been most noted for the introduction of a “cross-cutting theme” of “equality, diversity, accessibility and inclusion”, as well as themes of “sustainable development” and “employability, entrepreneurship and enterprise education”. The draft is bad.
The mathematician John Armstrong wrote and publicised an open letter, subsequently signed by other mathematicians, strongly objecting to these and other aspects of QAA’s draft Statement. Armstrong’s letter is well-written and covers the ground well. The draft’s headline absurdity is a call for “decolonising the curriculum”, which Armstrong tears to bits. This headline absurdity, however, has distracted people from other problems with the draft, and more generally from considering the intrinsic dangers of such quasi-authoritative statements.
First, to semi-clarify the regulatory status of QAA’s benchmarks, the draft Statement notes that QAA Statements “are not sector-recognised standards” under England’s regulatory framework. Elsewhere in the UK, however, QAA’s Statements have a more official status. In Scotland, which ironically might be feeling a bit like a colony right now, QAA’s Statements are “a key reference point … for academic standards”. Whatever its official status, the draft reads as if it were official. The language is unceasingly of certainty and necessity and urgency, of an unquestionable authority.
I will quote and slap specific aspects of the draft Statement, but I first want to raise a general objection, which Armstrong also touches upon: ignoring the obvious absurdities of the draft, what is the supposed good purpose of such a benchmark statement? How are from-on-high “benchmarks” for all tertiary courses on mathematics and/or statistics and/or operations research in the entire UK going to benefit anyone? If the benchmarks are too specific then they will not fit many institutions, if any; they will encourage or demand a boring uniformity, and probably a dumbing down. If, on the other hand, the benchmarks are couched in general terms then they are effectively just motherhood statements. Except, these motherhood statements, always framed in terms of students’ needs and students’ rights, and never in terms of students’ responsibility for themselves, become a weapon, which is then happily wielded by every lazy malcontent who expects an A for doing bugger all work. Unless one is Mother Theresa, honest attempts at motherhood don’t cut it anymore. Academics have already been beaten into submission by university administrations’ feeding, and feeding upon, the ever-strengthening culture of narcissism. Statements from organisations such as QAA inevitably make it worse.
For specifics, QAA’s draft Statement makes for easy pickings. The easiest such pickings are, of course, in the section on equality, diversity and inclusion, beginning with the very first line (1.21):
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is essential for the health of MSOR …
Yeah, we’re all for peace, love and understanding, but what does the statement mean? What, exactly, is essential, and why? If the subsequent paragraphs are intended to clarify, they are not reassuring (1.23):
Values of EDI should permeate the curriculum and every aspect of the learning experience to ensure the diverse nature of society in all its forms is evident.
Yes, “permeate” and “every aspect”. They are not thinking small. Or thinking. Let’s continue (1.23):
MSOR providers should reflect on their curricula and processes to ensure that no group is disadvantaged or othered;
There’s a group right now that I’d really like to be othering, but let’s get to the headline absurdity (1.23):
for example, decolonising the curriculum can involve explicit reflection on the history of MSOR knowledge generation, as well as reflecting on how delivery or admission practices might adversely impact on certain subgroups within the student cohort.
Remember all that eurocentric history you got in your linear algebra class? Well, no more. The era of white male scalars is over.
The obvious point, which Armstrong hammers, is that there is essentially no history in standard mathematics classes. This may be considered regrettable, and it is reasonable and good if a lecturer wishes to include some history in their already crowded subject, either as a little catch-your-breath colour or more intrinsically. If so, it may be natural to mention critical contributions of non-European individuals and cultures. Which pretty much any lecturer would already do, without the hectoring to do so. But for QAA to be pushing the incorporation of a specific view of specific history to serve a specific political agenda is obscene.
To continue (1.25):
It is imperative that students encounter a wide range of role models within higher education. This is particularly important given the well-known gender imbalance in the subject …, retention and attainment gaps, …
Maybe. I’m yet to be convinced that the role model thing is all that relevant, and there is a troubling resonance. Calls for role models can lead to dark waters. But continuing (1.25),
… and the strong focus of curricula on the historical work of white Western males.
The white Western males who are rarely if ever mentioned, and even more rarely discussed or pictured. And if so, then so what? What do you want us to do? Change history? Wear a hair shirt for some ills of the past?
To continue (1.25):
There is a need for inclusive language and scenarios in all publicity and teaching material, and for courses to be informed by the student voice …
Always with the “student voice”, as if no one is now hearing it loud and clear, or that anyone has any choice in the matter. Let’s go on (1.25):
… and taught in a way which makes the resources meaningful to all students and with topics and examples which have relevance to a wide range of people.
Because if it is not demonstrably relevant to the student, it’s not worth learning.
This interminable section on EDI then continues with a list of “implications for all aspects of provision”. It includes a second call for “visible diverse role models, … diverse staff in all roles”, and then it’s back to micromanaging the curriculum and more decolonising (1.26):
the curriculum should present a multicultural and decolonised view of MSOR, informed by the student voice. Where possible, it should present the work of a diverse group of MSOR practitioners. Students should be made aware of problematic issues in the development of the MSOR content they are being taught, for example some pioneers of statistics supported eugenics, or some mathematicians had connections to the slave trade, racism or Nazism.
Yes and, mostly, no.
There is plenty more to criticise in QAA’s draft Statement. In particular, I wanted to attack the snake oily section on “enterprise and entrepreneurship education” (1.49-1.60), and the pushy section on “sustainability” (1.44-1.48). But it’s probably more important to stick to QAA’s nazis.
There is something dangerously obtuse about QAA’s campaigning for students’ awareness of “problematic issues”. It may well be natural to mention that some important mathematicians were less than exemplary human beings in their research. If one is teaching game theory then noting that Von Neumann was almost literally Dr. Strangelove seems well worth the digression. It shouldn’t be mandatory, but it’s not stretching to suggest that such connections be made. But then QAA pushes too far. Why “should” students be made aware of “connections to the slave trade, racism or Nazism”? What purpose is there to this other than to play yet another round of Good Guys And Bad Guys, a game with nothing intrinsically to do with mathematics?
The important mathematicians Oswald Teichmüller and Ludwig Bieberbach were full-blown nazis. Felix Hausdorff, pictured above, was a German Jewish mathematician, who committed suicide rather than be sent to an internment camp. I only read about Hausdorff’s tragic end a few years ago, and I was struck and saddened by the discovery. If I had known when teaching my course on measure theory, I definitely would have talked to the class at least some about Hausdorff’s life; I then may well have brought up nazi mathematicians. I don’t think I “should” have, but I probably would have. If someone had more or less ordered me to do it, however, I would have told them to bugger off.
There is more that could be said. There’s a double-edge to much of what QAA is attempting to mandate. But that’ll do. QAA should simply be told to bugger off.