Some wrong turns along the right road

Quality Assurance in Higher Education

May 28, 2004

This is a crisp account of a tortuous development. It also nicely illustrates how hard it is to get the right answer if you start with the wrong question.

Roger Brown was the founding and only director of the short-lived Higher Education Quality Council (1992-97). He knows only too well that the driving purpose behind the introduction of quality assurance in higher education had little to do with quality and much to do with accountability, control and protecting politicians from charges of damaging universities by cutting costs.

His book is invaluable for the way it pins down the tangled history of the quality assurance wars while memories are fresh and documents have not gone to the shredder. Brown teases apart the issues of audit, assessment and enhancement; emphasises the distinction between "a fitness for purpose and a fitness of purpose view of quality"; sets out the history of successive agencies, the Academic Audit Unit, the Higher Education Quality Council and the Quality Assurance Agency; and flies his own kite as to what still needs to be done.

In the process, he dishes out some richly deserved criticism. Here is a catalogue of repeated interference by ministers, directly or through the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Not trusting higher education to regulate itself, they were, he says, determined to keep control and "had an overriding preoccupation with comparisons between institutions". Failure to address the contradiction between diversity and comparability has dogged successive attempts to set up a robust quality regime.

"But," he writes, "if the government and Hefce bear the main responsibility for the nearly farcical, and certainly serious, waste of effort that so much post-1992 quality assurance has represented, the institutions, and especially their representative bodies, cannot avoid some of the blame."

For too long higher education leaders were more interested in avoiding public inspection than in installing a credible quality assurance regime. A partisan of the former polytechnics, Brown does not dwell on the enthusiasm with which they dumped the Council for National Academic Awards when they became universities. He largely spares the old universities criticism for doing so little for so long. He also avoids considering, except in passing, the quality regime for research. This book is about quality assurance for teaching.

What he does lambast university leaders for is the failure, once the writing was on the wall, to draw on published research and on home-grown and international expertise to construct their own agency. "It is hard to forgive the vice-chancellors for such a serious failure."

Nonetheless he sees the regime that has painfully emerged as hopeful, if unstable. It could either evolve into an institutional accreditation agency by abandoning "the Gothic structures" set out in the Handbook for Institutional Audit , or it could fall back into the hands of outsiders bent on control and inspection.

This is a partisan book written by one of the principal players. It is understandably tinged with anger at how he and the agency he set up were swept aside. But this does not diminish its usefulness. It should be in the reference collection of every pro vice-chancellor (quality), every higher education minister or adviser, and every member of the education select committee. This is history we cannot afford to repeat.

Auriol Stevens was editor, The Times Higher , from 1992 to 2002.

Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992

Author - Roger Brown
Publisher - RoutledgeFalmer
Pages - 201
Price - £85.00
ISBN - 0 415 33492 6

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