What kind of dog is the Quality Assurance Agency: a lapdog or a guard dog?
That, in so many words, was the question put to Peter Williams, the QAA's chief executive, when he appeared last week before a cross-party panel of MPs.
The answer, he said, is that the agency is "a watchdog, principally", prompting Phil Willis, chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, to observe: "But you have no teeth, do you?"
"It's interesting that once we get into canine analogies, we always get on to dental analogies," Mr Williams replied.
What became clear as MPs chewed over the meaty issues of university standards, the external examiner system and the sector's reliance on overseas students was that the select committee certainly has teeth, and may be willing to use them.
The most obvious way for the QAA to bare its fangs is through audits of universities, which allow it to indicate "no confidence" or "limited confidence" in institutions.
When the select committee asked how often the agency invoked these warnings, Mr Williams replied that between 2002 and 2006, when the last round of audits were carried out, there had been six cases of limited confidence and one of no confidence. In all seven cases, that status had been lifted after action plans by the institutions involved.
Committee members suggested that the QAA might be able to direct its scrutiny more efficiently by identifying institutions most likely to pose concerns and auditing them more regularly than others. Mr Williams said this model was being considered.
Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, wanted to know whether other methods had been considered for checking up on universities.
"Have you used other techniques of quality assurance such as the 'mystery shopper', or is that too radical for your austere organisation?" Dr Harris asked.
Mr Williams said: "It's something we've thought about, but you have to be very careful about how you use the evidence you get."
The evidence session was triggered by comments that Mr Williams had made after the QAA released a number of reports last month, when he said the degree classification system was "arbitrary and unreliable" and "rotten".
He also raised concerns about the external examiner system, and cautioned against an over-reliance on overseas students, some of whom, he said, believed that "if they pay their fees they will get a degree".
Mr Willis described this language as "headline grabbing" and asked Mr Williams to clarify whether he believed that the UK's higher education system was "deficient".
The QAA chief executive said he did not, and that his strongest criticism was directed not at the general system, but at the system for classifying degrees. "I agree that 'rotten' is a colourful adjective to have used, but I have strong feelings about it."
He said: "The degree classification system is past its usefulness. It isn't fit for its original purpose."
The committee compared higher education with the schools system, arguing that if one A-level exam board operated to different standards compared with another, there would be "outrage", whereas universities were allowed to use their autonomy as an "excuse".
"Do you accept that university autonomy is not a good enough reason for taxpayers, who have an 80 per cent stake in funding (higher education institutions), not to be concerned that there's doubt about comparability between degree standards?" Mr Williams was asked.
He countered that taxpayers should "take comfort" that this had been identified as an area of concern by the sector, which he said wanted to "do something about it".
He added that he did not think a common standard achieved through a national exam system was possible, warning that this would "fundamentally undermine" the sector's diversity.
Mr Williams was asked to speculate on where the pressure to award higher degrees, if such pressure existed, was coming from.
"I think it's impossible to believe vice-chancellors are handing down edicts to the whole organisation because edicts like that are impossible to keep secret," he said. "If we have a problem, and we only have hearsay evidence at the moment, my guess would be mostly lower-level folk."
On the question of standards among overseas students, who pay high fees, Mr Williams said he did not believe it was in universities' interests to "push them through" because it would devalue their degrees. Dr Harris countered: "What makes you think that's a more credible scenario than universities fearing for their reputations overseas if they don't award a degree to every fee-paying student?"
The QAA chief executive agreed it had to be "made clear" that institutions were offering an "opportunity" to international students, rather than guaranteed degrees for fees.
Dr Harris said he did not understand why the threat posed to university autonomy by increased regulation of standards was considered greater than the threat posed by a reliance on overseas student fees "to keep universities alive".
But Mr Williams said he was wary of increasing regulation, adding that "the compliance approach is the death knell of innovation".
Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, who has been critical of "slipping standards", said: "Without saying so in so many words, I think the committee has indicated only limited confidence in the QAA. The chairman himself used the words toothless bulldog."
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