October 2017


Subject benchmark statements and degree programmes in Computing

Pere Brunet Crosa - President of the committee of experts on the subject benchmark statement Computing and member of the Academy of Europe.

Last year a group of nine of us were commissioned with a task that was both a challenge and an opportunity as the director of AQU Catalunya asked us to draw up a subject benchmark statement for study programmes in Computing. The idea formed part of a pilot project to establish whether it was possible to convert the current stage of programme validation into a self-validation procedure for institutions proposing new programmes. This would expedite this stage and allow for greater emphasis in the Agency's work to focus on the stages of modification and accreditation. It is useful to bear in mind that 93% of validations carried out in 2015 were positively assessed.

It was the intention of AQU Catalunya for the team to include foreign experts, so an international group was constituted and got down to work, and in fact we worked on this practically all of last year. The first thing we did was to study and analyse the Subject Benchmark Statement for Computing, a similar document produced by the QAA in 2016 that is a clear and brief synthesis of various previous documents produced by the QAA. We were impressed by it and decided to use it as a basic document for our work.

There were lots of ideas that motivated us. We wanted to produce a short document that would be of use not just for those proposing new degree courses in Computing, but also for employers interested in recruiting graduates and prospective students deciding what to study. As with the QAA document, we decided to talk not about a curriculum or subjects (ACM, IEEE), but what can be expected of a graduate in the subject. The basis of our work was the idea that a good balance is needed between the theoretical and mathematical fundaments and the technological aspects for designing and building IT systems, with a constant focus on computational thinking at the centre of all of this, which means knowing how to select appropriate representations for problems and how to model and implement the relevant aspects in practice. Instead of a given percentage of students who complete their studies, we felt it was more important to assure the quality of their professional employment outcomes and ensure that all graduates achieve a certain level of skills acquisition. Our intention was also to transmit the fact that problems that arise are increasingly of an interdisciplinary nature, that the subject is changing and in constant evolution, and that graduates therefore need be prepared so that they can adapt and that they have and are capable of applying a critical mind-set. It is therefore no longer a question of thinking in terms of degrees based on a stable body of knowledge.

In spite of what one currently sees in universities, the team was in agreement, right from the very beginning, that it is highly recommendable for undergraduate degree programmes to be generalist in nature, for them to have a solid base and consist of subjects that also involve solving projects and problems that are real and complex. Master's programmes can be either generalist or specialist, and they should include an initial selection of student candidates, envisaged outcomes for research and/or study and the design of innovative systems in real, multidisciplinary and changing environments.

One of the main aspects in the new document is the checklist at the end. This includes a total of 44 questions organised according to six sections that correspond to the dimensions in the validation procedure, which we think should cover new programmes during the self-validation procedure. This is something that we looked at very carefully and finally concluded that, unlike documents in other countries, a list of questions would be really useful. The questions deal with different aspects such as including outside and foreign experts in the drawing-up process; what mechanisms should be implemented to prevent and control pressure and influence (lobbying) by faculty staff; whether specific mechanisms are included for the periodic review and update of the curriculum; if the percentage of staff with PhD qualifications is above 50% or not; and whether the acquisition of an appropriate level in cognitive skills, communication skills and team-working is and/or can be assured. We believe these to be questions that will warrant consideration in matters regarding the broader context, the process of developing curricula, teaching resources and the quality assurance of teaching staff, career opportunities, quality control and the level required of graduates.

After intense hours of discussion and various preliminary versions, the final document released now was agreed to by the nine of us who worked on it, and as a team of experts we are confident that our work fulfils the task given to us by the Agency.


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