One of the most frequently asked questions by callers to The THES is "which is the best university for subject xxxx?" One of the best-selling issues of the paper is the one carrying league tables. Academics and institutions may hate league tables and graded ratings but employers and potential students (home and overseas) love them. And as proof of their importance, enormous institutional effort goes into getting top scores, which are then trumpeted in prospectuses.
The raw material for these comparisons looks set to disappear. Universities UK is set to publish proposals for an audit model of quality assurance reminiscent of the Academic Audit Unit set up by the old universities in 1990. Subject assessment is expected to become sporadic. Nothing has yet been said about how the Quality Assurance Agency's work on benchmarks, thresholds and the meaning of degree titles will fit in. An audit model is good for quality enhancement and appropriate to satisfy legal requirements that funding councils ensure quality is monitored. But, and this is where it failed before, audit does not provide employers or potential students with the comparative information they want and to which they feel entitled, nor does it ensure that degree titles have roughly the same meaning wherever they are offered. It will no longer be acceptable to neglect these demands so, before higher education draws a collective sigh of relief at the apparent dismantling of the QAA regime, it is worth asking how they are to be met. The QAA's work on standards has been heavy handed and is inappropriately housed alongside its other functions, but it should not go entirely to waste.
This week's Institute for Learning and Teaching conference suggests where a partial solution may lie. The ILT, after a bumpy start, has exceeded its own (modest) performance targets and, with careful diplomacy, should be able to avert the Association of University Teachers' threat to set up a rival (page 6). This week's conference is well attended by subject specialists as well as education developers. Growing up under the ILT's wing is the Learning and Teaching Support Network with its embryonic subject centres. These centres would be appropriate heirs to the QAA's work on standards, mapping QAA's 42 subjects onto its 24 centres. This would remove standard setting from funding and would work with the grain of traditional discipline-based loyalties. More difficult, but worth considering, is whether the centres might also in due course take responsibility for peer review of teaching.