Stalin had to die too

March 30, 2001

Like the Soviet machine, the QAA has crushed creativity and wasted resources, Alan Ryan argues.

To an academic like myself, the Quality Assurance Agency seems an appalling waste of time and money, its effect on education is malign, and in a rational world it would be closed tomorrow.

Politics was inspected a few months ago at Oxford University. The department worked very hard to meet the QAA's requirements and got 24 out of 24. The inspectors were courteous and careful, did their job according to the rules, listened to explanations of what they did not understand and asked more or less relevant questions. They were not well-suited to their task because they seemed to have no clue about how the place works, but they tried to get it right. Things went as well as they could and the result was as good as it gets. But it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the QAA should be closed tomorrow.

The reasons are few and simple. First, the entire exercise is misconceived. The board of the QAA is top-heavy with university administrators, businessmen and accountants, who know less about education than I know about accountancy. They seem to dislike intellectual activity on principle and to share Stalin's view that variety is the first step to treason. The whole set-up might have been designed in the old Soviet Union to destroy variety, enforce uniformity, eliminate thought and impose the mentality of the apparatchik in its place. So it is not surprising that that is what it does.

Second, from my experience, inspections are a grotesque waste of time and money. A department of any size must devote the time of two senior members of faculty over a period of up to two years to prepare for the QAA. The Oxford politics department guesstimated the cost at almost a quarter of a million pounds. It is not just money that is wasted; useful work goes undone. Anyone accumulating a room full of paper for no more useful purpose than to ensure it is present if the inspectors want to see it is not improving tutorial services, is not organising departmental mentoring, is not fostering the essay-writing skills of under-equipped students, and is not doing a whole lot else.

Third, the QAA damages what it is meant to improve. Taking a department's mind off the real tasks of the department reduces higher education to the condition of Soviet tractor production. The object, in the latter case, ceased to be the production of tractors and became the creation of factories that matched the demands of visiting party bosses on the day they visited; the object in higher education has become the production of set-piece classes, implausibly tidy paperwork and lecture outlines that are within the comprehension of a two-year-old. It harms Oxford, which is not broke, less than it harms the new universities which are; but it is bad for everyone, no matter what their educational mission is.

In crediting students with no initiative, no critical capacities, and an IQ of about 75, the QAA imagines a military-cum-bureaucratic model of management: boss tells underling what to do and how, and underling is monitored to see if underling has done it. As a way of running anything it is a century out of date, and as a way of running an educational enterprise, it never made sense. Successful organisations come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and structures, but what makes university departments work properly is professional pride and the wish of faculty to shine in the estimation of their peer group. People will resentfully jump through whatever bureaucratic hoops they have to if they think their livelihood depends upon it, but, as a way of enhancing productivity and imagination, making them do so is perfectly useless.

Is this to say that accountability is a bad thing? Not in the least. But a system straight out of Gogol is not the way to achieve it. What keeps Berkeley honest? Stanford and Harvard and UCLA.What keeps Amherst honest? Williams and Swarthmore and Haverford and Bryn Mawr. What keeps Chico State honest? The ability of the Californian young to go to a dozen competing campuses and the desire of the faculty to be appointable elsewhere, if they wish to move. What would really keep the Oxford politics faculty on their toes? An advisory council with members from Essex, the London School of Economics, Manchester, Harvard, Michigan and Berkeley that reports directly to the vice-chancellor. What does the trick is competition, and the fact that none of us wants to work in an outfit that has neither intellectual flair nor social usefulness to commend it.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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