Leader: Caught in web of our own making

March 25, 2005

Anything that provides prospective students with objective judgements on the quality of higher education courses ought to be welcome. Since the demise of subject reviews, there has been little for them to go on beyond bald statistics. But there must be a suspicion that the summaries of external examiners' reports that have begun to appear on the Teaching Quality Information website will do more harm than good.

Most applicants will find little to influence their decisions among the summaries. Although some universities have included fuller entries, sixth-formers and their advisers will soon tire of a succession of formulaic statements about examiners finding standards "appropriate for qualifications at this level". Other extracts are often so brief that a reference to improvement, for example, leaves the reader none the wiser about whether the starting point was good or bad. Perhaps the site will become more informative as the system beds down, but the opposite seems more likely. When those universities that have included critical comments see the contrast with less forthcoming competitors, the natural reaction will be to become less open themselves. In an era of top-up fees and increasing reliance on the overseas market, no institution can afford to put its reputation at risk.

A more damaging consequence would be to encourage examiners to tone down their reports. External validation has been one of the bedrocks of British higher education and frankness is vital if the process is to be worthwhile.

If similar transfers from confidentiality to public scrutiny are any guide, it is not hard to imagine straight talking continuing to take place at the examiners' meeting, but the subsequent reports becoming more anodyne.

The publication of external examiners' reports was a political decision to cover the Government's embarrassment at the withdrawal of the only independent source of detailed consumer guidance on higher education courses. The evidence thus far is that the process will be time-consuming, mostly uninformative and potentially damaging. The next stage of the TQI process will be the release of the student satisfaction survey, which many universities will find equally unpalatable. Those who argued for a reform of teaching quality assessment, rather than its abandonment, may feel that chickens are coming home to roost.

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