Giving Students, Parents and Employers Confidence: Geography’s Experiences of Accreditation

Dr Richard Hodgkins, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, has recently received a Vice-Chancellor’s Award from Loughborough University for his contribution to Learning and Teaching. In this post, Dr Hodgkins details the recent experiences in gaining accreditation for some, rather different, programmes offered by the Department of Geography at Loughborough.

On the face of it, some academic disciplines, with more obvious career pathways, lend themselves naturally to accreditation, and others less so. However, all degree programmes benefit from being able to display some kind of quality stamp.

These programmes are the MSci (Hons) Geography and BA (Hons) Geography, both also available as sandwich programmes, the latter leading to the additional qualification of Diploma in Professional Studies (DPS) for those undertaking an industrial placement, or Diploma in International Studies (DIntS), for those undertaking study abroad. The main goal of each is to offer the most appropriate curriculum and outcome for somewhat different communities of potential geography students. The MSci takes the route of specialisation, being a four-year integrated Masters’ programme with a strong focus on physical and environmental geography. The BA takes the route of generalisation, stemming from the nature of geography as a diverse discipline spanning the sciences and humanities, offering those favouring its social and cultural aspects the opportunity to graduate with a qualification which, more closely than the current BSc, reflects the content they have pursued.

What are the challengers ?

It’s difficult to persuade an accreditor to look favourably on your programmes if you don’t have a clear sense of their strengths, which can be articulated cogently. So for each programme, it’s been important to step back, and to see the wood for the trees. Why offer it? What are the real benefits for students: are they being offered a distinctive curriculum with a clear sense of purpose and outcome, rather than a mash-up of pre-existing modules? The MSci is therefore specified to provide a pathway to environmental employment through a focused, practically-orientated and progressive menu of physical geography modules, which engage extensively by design with both contemporary research and with environmental monitoring for the purpose of effective management. The BA, on the other hand, is specified to provide the widest coherent menu of options possible, given that a significant proportion of geography students (particular those aspiring to become teachers) prefer to study both human and physical aspects of the discipline. The latter is consistent with the unique nature of geography as the integrated study of landscapes, peoples, places and environments, and is a view of geography that is strongly favoured by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)(RGS-IBG), of which more below.

What are the benefits of offering a diverse range of programmes? 

From a departmental perspective, these recently-approved programmes have manageably diversified our offering, which contributes to admissions robustness. From a student perspective, enhanced satisfaction is the aim, through offering more tailored outcomes with specific awards. From the personal perspective of a departmental Director of Studies, there is a lot to be learned about matters that can get taken for granted, such as understanding how curricula should be consistently mapped to appropriate ILOs for different communities of students, and how Subject Benchmarking informs this process. I’m not under the illusion that ILO mapping is the stuff of dreams, but it’s vital that we retain the coherence of our programmes in the face of change and churn, so that students actually get what they believe they’ve signed up for, and so that accreditors can express their confidence in what they see.

We obtained accreditation for the MSci from the Institution of Environmental Sciences (Committee of Heads of Environmental Sciences, CHES) in May 2016. The key to the case was demonstrating, with evidence, how the modules aligned clearly with Subject Benchmarks, and with the specific expectations of the accrediting body; for instance, CHES places a particularly strong emphasis on environmental career development and links with professional practice, so it was important to establish in some depth that our modules did in fact do this in a substantive way that was both assessed and credited. In September 2016, we similarly obtained accreditation for the MSci and three other of our programmes – BA/BSc (Hons) Geography and BSc (Hons) Geography with Economics, including their DPS/DIntS versions – from the newly-established scheme of the Research and Higher Education Division of the RGS-IBG, now the key accreditor for the discipline. All four programmes were among the very first to be accredited: only 20 departments nationally achieved this distinction. In its evaluation, the RGS-IBG noted that the case contained “Clear and detailed description of aims achieved through core and optional modules… cross-referencing to the benchmark statement is evident”, underlining the value of all that ILO mapping, and that this is an ongoing process shared by all teaching staff. This is a significant accomplishment in a discipline a very wide range of alternative career pathways in which accreditation has not traditionally played an important role.

In our efforts to build our profile, Loughborough Geography can now justifiably claim a quality assurance “Kitemark” from the UK’s flagship accreditor. By the same token, our graduates – our ambassadors! – can be confident that their degrees are well-regarded when they pursue further study or enter the jobs market.