Alan Ryan

August 6, 2004

While the QAA may have eliminated the worst 10 per cent of practice, it has got rid of the wonderful 10 per cent, too

Many years ago, I spent a happy couple of years helping with a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations . It was the early days of computer typesetting, so the result - the third edition - was stronger on content than on appearance. No matter. The downside was an unhealthy wish to feature posthumously in some later edition of the work... I hope a more defensible motive makes me wish that the concept of dumbing-up had received more attention. I believe I invented it a few months ago - though I will yield to prior claimants if any appear.

The fact that I really mean dumbing into the middle may have reduced the appeal of the idea, but with the approach of the season when A-level grades are revealed and the usual bickering over standards begins and The Times Higher reports on some thinly veiled threats from Sam Younger, the new chairman of the board of the Quality Assurance Agency, I am tempted to try again to put "dumbing up" into circulation.

I should declare an interest. I taught Mr Younger 35 years ago and I fear I failed to instil in him a proper respect for liberal education or a decent scepticism about government micro-management. His career at the BBC was admirable; his chairmanship of the electoral commission and the British Red Cross is admirable. But now he has become chairman of the board of the QAA, and has celebrated his installation by trying to intimidate the universities whose lives are made miserable by the QAA.

Just as Chris Woodhead, former head of Ofsted, did, he has reminded them that things could be worse; they could be subjected to visitations from Ofsted; and if they complain too loudly, Ofsted is what they'll get.

Even without questioning the need for the QAA in the first place, this is like telling the victims of the Kray twins that if they complain, they might find themselves with the mafia instead. So, back to first base.

The QAA exists to ensure that universities have bureaucratic mechanisms in place to assure themselves that they are doing those things that they have said they will do. To whom have they said what they will do? To the QAA.

The QAA exists to get universities to show it their ways of checking whether they have done those things they have told the QAA they will do.

But why is the QAA involved at all? It's certainly a good idea for universities to tell students what they will teach them, however hard it is to persuade students to take in the information they are given. And it's a good idea for students to have some way of complaining if universities examine them in what they haven't taught them and don't teach them what they promise to.

Since April, indeed, they have had Dame Ruth Deech, whose fierceness with backsliding academics and concern for students are not in doubt. So, what does the QAA add? It makes universities adopt old-fashioned command and control systems, and promotes Blairite "modernisation" by the mechanisms of tsarist bureaucracy.

Is this a bad thing? It is certainly a waste of time and money and, to judge by its impact on Oxford University over the past year, it reduces moderately rational persons to a state of neurotic anxiety. Does it tell universities anything they didn't know? No. Does it tell students anything they didn't know? No. And it misleads school pupils, journalists, ministers and anyone else who cares to be misled, because it gives an assessment of bureaucratic compliance in a form that is readily mistaken for intellectual excellence (or teaching competence, which is rather different).

There is a defence of the QAA - like the defence of Ofsted. It is said that it has eliminated the worst 10 per cent of terrible teaching, utter disorganisation, incoherent lectures, examinations unrelated to courses and the rest. This may be true. And it is not the QAA's fault that institutions can score 24 out of 24 for something they shouldn't be doing in the first place, because much that is taught in universities should be taught in technical high schools. Blame that on ignorant politicians and civil servants.

But, the price of eliminating the terrible 10 per cent has been to eliminate the wonderful 10 per cent at the same time. The emphasis on "course delivery" complete with endless handouts, PowerPoint presentations, examination questions tailored to lecture notes and all the rest of it, ensures that anyone other than the brain dead can get a 2.2, but it gives the alert every reason not to produce imaginative, interesting and novel responses, and to collect their firsts by giving their teachers an intelligent summary of their lectures. Which is to say: dumbing down at the top, dumbing up at the bottom and dumbing into the middle.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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