Is this watchdog needed?

For all that is spent on quality assurance, we get very little reassurance on things that matter, argues Allan Ashworth

April 16, 2009

It might be worth asking whether the Quality Assurance Agency assures those aspects of university education that the public, students and future employers need to know; for it is far from clear what it means when it suggests that it assures academic standards.

The QAA has stated previously that degree classifications are wobbly at best and that a first from one university cannot be compared to a first at another institution. Some will argue that a first in some places is worth less than a 2:1 or even a 2:2 in some others. The QAA has little (nothing?) to do with the curriculums that are taught, so it does not assure this for the wider world - it leaves this to professional and statutory bodies. But such bodies cover only a part of the provision delivered in universities.

It is left to the universities themselves to provide quality assurance for this aspect, usually through regular internal review. The QAA does not assure anyone that external examiners are doing the job they are paid to do. It does not assure the fairness and justice of the research assessment exercise, although it would claim that this is outside its remit. It does not assure teaching standards, and, since the abolition of subject review, it does not observe any teaching.

It is surprising what can be learnt about a course by observing teaching. Universities might ask external examiners to comment on the teaching standards. But how could the external examiners possibly know? Good-quality work and high standards might well be achieved despite poor-quality teaching. Does the QAA assure us about the outputs of the National Student Survey? I don’t think so, and I am unconvinced about the merit of such a survey.

All the above activities cost time and money. We need to ask whether we are getting a good return for such investments. Do they improve our university performance worldwide and add to the reputation of UK degrees? Do they raise university performance, the quality of the student experience and the overall wellbeing of UK higher education?

I have been involved in quality assurance activities of various kinds for the past 20 years - first as an HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspector), then as an accreditor for a large professional body, as a QAA subject review chair, as an external examiner and as a validator in many institutions, in the UK and abroad. I have also been on the receiving end of inspection by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which Alan Ryan appears to support as the best way forward (“An Ofqual, not QAA, is needed for standards”, Times Higher Education, 2 April).

My difficulty with the CNAA approach and with some of the activities of the QAA is that they are about what might be rather than what has been and what could be. Ryan suggests, “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.” Does every university not do this through its validation of new courses and through regular reviews thereafter? Surely what we need to know is not what is promised, but what is delivered. This requires a focus on achievements rather than on intentions, no matter how good and honest they may be. Only in this way can anyone have assurance that universities are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Many observers have argued that the QAA has no teeth. The question might be asked, “Should it have?” Might it not be better to leave universities to get on with it? Their vice-chancellors will surely want them to advance their reputations in teaching and research. Is it now time to trust them? Furthermore, are we asking the impossible of these bodies? Would anyone notice if they were not there? Would standards slip further? Could the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Higher Education Academy not be used as the channel for the Government’s agendas? Do universities really need a watchdog in 2009?

The emphasis on any external quality assurance should be about what has been achieved rather than what has been proposed. Only then can we have any real assurance. Proposals are no more than paper thin. Achievements are what matter.

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