Accessible Language in HE

In every walk of life a language develops to express concepts and practices in shorthand. The opacity of this varies widely from descriptive naming [‘piece to camera’, perhaps, or to use a topical example: ‘traybake’] to the utterly indecipherable [take your pick from binomial nomenclature – the naming of species, usually in Latin – to the worst excesses of Legalese].

Where does UK Higher Education sit on this scale? There can be no doubt that the sector is saturated with jargon, largely in the form of impenetrable acronyms, abbreviations and quasi-technical phrases such as ‘threshold academic standards’.

You were saying? Image by scarydan via FlickR

You were saying? Image by scarydan via FlickR

Some observations:

If you look around you will find attempts to de-mystify the terminology largely for a student audience, for example, in guides written for student representatives to help them decipher discussions in committee meetings.

JISC has published a summary of examples of language used in course and module descriptions, such as the University of Sunderland’s ‘Tips for student-friendly language’, where: More is not necessarily better and plain English need not be a barrier to academic precision”:

  • ‘you’ not ‘the student’
  • technical words used with care
  • active not passive verb forms
  • verbs rather than abstract nouns
  • acronyms spelt out

At the coal-face (or should it be crossroads) of jargon-busting / jargon-creation is the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). The project to review and update the ‘Academic Infrastructure’, which led to the creation of the UK Quality Code, has resulted in amendments to some of the terms used.

‘Collaborative Provision’ is now ‘Managing Higher Education Provision with Others’;

‘Student support, learning resources and careers education, information, advice and guidance’ has the slightly snappier if less clearly defined ‘Enabling student development and achievement’.

The QAA are considering whether and how to modify the language used in review reports for a student (and prospective student) audience. Their Student Advisory Board are driving this agenda and a possible outcome is separate reports for different audiences, such as a short ‘dashboard’ version for students. It will be interesting to see how far this goes in the direction of a lowest common denominator (as seen in Key Information Sets, which also encourages student-friendly language), potentially reducing complex institutions to a narrow set of data. Terms such as ‘enhancement’, ‘external qualifications benchmarks’ and ‘affirmations’ are all potentially problematic for a wider public audience and may go the way of ‘academic infrastructure’.

Sir Ernest Gowers in The Complete Plain Words (1954):

‘Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer’s job is to make the reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely.’

There is then a balance to be struck between accessible and meaningful language.

Comprehension yes, but clarity is needed too.


Ok, ok. Here’s an Acronym Buster:

HEI = Higher Education Institution

QAA = Quality Assurance Agency

JISC = Actually, it’s simply JISC these days

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