An Ofqual, not QAA, is needed for standards

Inspectorate to approve degrees would do sector good, MPs are told. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 2, 2009

A national inspectorate to approve university degrees, check curriculums and verify standards, as the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) once did, should replace the Quality Assurance Agency, MPs were told this week.

Giving evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, said that the CNAA was "much more like the right animal".

He said it would do universities good to have a body that required them to explain what they taught and to justify their teaching and examination methods, instead of one that focused on procedures.

The CNAA oversaw the degree-awarding powers of polytechnics between 1965 and 1992. Professor Ryan described it as "a version of Ofqual for universities".

"You couldn't (offer) a degree course without getting it past the CNAA. It looked at the syllabuses, it looked at ... teaching resources, and external examiners came from the CNAA," he told MPs in an evidence session held at Oxford Brookes University.

The CNAA maintained standards effectively because "it would have been deeply humiliated to validate and approve courses that other people later thought weren't up to scratch", Professor Ryan said.

A body that required universities to provide coherent accounts of their methods would do the sector good, he said, unlike the QAA, which did "no good" at all.

"I think it means that we don't end up being catastrophically disorganised," Professor Ryan said.

The committee also heard concerns about the reliability of degree-classification systems.

Chris Rust, from the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group at Oxford Brookes, said: "You can have up to a degree classification difference with the same set of results from one student, simply by feeding them into a different algorithm ... In certain disciplines - maths, for example - you can get full marks for certain types of activity ... Those numbers then get crunched together in quite indefensible ways."

He said he was in favour of developing disciplinary communities that would help to share standards across different universities, a recommendation also made by Oxford Brookes' Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe).

Margaret Price, director of ASKe, suggested that the Higher Education Academy's subject centres were ideally placed to do this. She said one problem was that external examiners often operated as individuals rather than as representatives of their disciplinary community.

Meanwhile, students from Oxford Brookes agreed that there should be measures to ensure that the classifications awarded by different universities were equivalent.

Asked about Oxford's "other" university, Meagan Pitt, a law student from South Africa, said she had met some University of Oxford law students in Freshers' Week, but did not find them particularly friendly.

"I've been told that Oxford calls us the ELC - the 'early learning centre'. There is that prejudice," she told the committee.

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