Alan Ryan

August 12, 2005

There is nothing like two Dames and a Knight to cut bureaucracy and help universities to run a bit more efficiently

When he was president of Princeton University, Bill Bowen had a simple recipe for managerial efficiency: if you want a task done well, give it to a busy woman. The past fortnight has given universities reason to be grateful to not just one but two busy women: Dame Patricia Hodgson, a star media administrator and soon to be principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Dame Sandra Burslem, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University. If South Pacific was right that "there's nothing like a dame", two Dames are unbeatable.

Dame Patricia has managed to bang the heads of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and half a dozen other agencies together to begin the process of rationalising data collection. For the past decade, universities have had to hand over enormous quantities of statistical information to assorted bodies with different ideas about the basis on which it is to be collected and presented; aside from the expense of the process - some £80 million - it is a fantastic waste of management time.

It doesn't follow that when the collection process is cleaned up, the data will be used intelligently. There has been no coherent explanation of why the admissions benchmarks were suddenly changed last autumn - other than that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service abandoned the system under which tariffs were awarded, and nobody in Hesa and Hefce realised the implications. Still, one thing at a time.

Dame Sandra's report on the heavy-handedness of the Quality Assurance Agency is even more welcome, if only because £250 million of wasted time and effort is at stake. It would be nice to think that the writing was on the wall for the QAA, but the QAA is obviously adopting a policy of reculer pour mieux sauter (putting off the evil day) and abandoning subject reviews to preserve the rest of its operations. Hints that it will switch attention to the delivery of welfare suggest that its taste for pointless interference is unquenched.

Still, we are making progress. Its defenders have been reduced to saying that subject reviews have not been a "complete waste of time", which is much like defending the purchase of an unreliable car by saying that it hasn't spent all its time in the repair shop.

Rationality appears not to be solely the preserve of busy women. Sir Andrew Turnbull, the retiring Secretary to the Cabinet and head of the Civil Service, has delivered a valedictory lecture in which he attacked the idea of "earned autonomy" as a relic of the kind of top-down, authoritarian management that a progressive Government should be trying to eliminate.

"Earned autonomy" is one of the QAA's favourite notions. It amounts to the thought that an institution that displays sufficient cowed co-operation with the agency's latest requirements might be left alone for a bit. People who use such phrases have no understanding of what autonomy is. The contrast is simple: a society in which we are born in jail and stay there until we earn our parole is a world of "earned autonomy"; the sort of society most of us would prefer is where we are free to run our own lives until we forfeit our freedom by behaving badly.

Complaints about the system of subject reviews have tended to focus on the intellectual and academic shortcomings of the reviewers; and it is a familiar complaint that most of them wouldn't make it onto the shortlist if they were applying for a job at the places they are assessing. That is a bit mean spirited. You don't need to be a cobbler to know if the shoe pinches, and what you most need if you are looking at a department's teaching practices is enough empathy to imagine what it's like to be a student in it.

The greater objection is that because of the obsession of governments since Margaret Thatcher's with a notion of accountability that implies a narrowly top-down system of management, the QAA has been unable to do anything beyond reducing what was already a pretty minimal amount of really spectacular incompetence in the management of teaching. What a decent system of peer review might achieve - more interesting courses, livelier lectures and a stronger sense of the ethics of teaching that could do a bit to counteract the plagiarism plague - have hardly had a look-in.

As Cato observed of Carthage, the thing to do with the QAA is not to reduce its scope but to destroy it, and bring back a thinned out version of the Council for National Academic Awards to operate a system of peer review for the benefit of all those university colleges that have just acquired their new label. With the money we saved, we could even give these newcomers some birthday bonds to get them off to a prosperous start.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College Oxford.

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