Leader: Honesty is not the best policy

Universities' admissions of their failings have been met with calls for stringent supervision, surely the wrong approach entirely

July 24, 2008

Very soon we will be entering the silly season, the time when A-level results are published and the oh-so predictable accusations of dumbing down begin. Except that this year the chorus of disapproval has already started, from the other end of the educational spectrum, with our degree system.

Last month, Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, set the ball rolling by blaming a "league-table culture" embraced by vice-chancellors for a collapse in university standards. This was followed by concerns raised over the external examiner system, an overreliance on overseas students and criticisms by Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, of the degree classification system.

Last week, a cross-party group of MPs met to try to assess the damage and to decide whether there was a need for an inquiry.

Unfortunately, the MPs couldn't decide where the problem lies. Phil Willis, chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, at one and the same time accused the QAA, the sector's watchdog, of having "no teeth" and of "headline grabbing" when it advanced critical opinions on degree classifications and the grades awarded to overseas students. The committee also appeared to float the spectre of a national qualifications system, roughly comparable to that operating in schools.

In the midst of all this, Mr Williams was desperately trying to point out that when he described the degree classification system as "arbitrary and unreliable", as well as "rotten", it was the classification system he was criticising and not degree standards in general. A relatively unremarkable conclusion, following as it did the Burgess review group's assertion that the classification system was "not fit for purpose".

But the damage was done. The MPs could sniff a scandal in the making, or at least a committee of inquiry. Or was it those rotten apples? Whatever the source of the whiff, they fortunately were there to put the universities' unkempt house in order. Tidy up a few loose ends. Dust down the odd overawarded foreigner.

For those who have argued passionately against the QAA and all its works, this must be a pretty convincing case of the remedy being worse than the disease. Westminster logic seems to be implying that what universities need, and what the public demands, is more regulation. Imagine the "outrage", they suggested, if A-level exam boards were to operate in the faintly anarchic way that universities did!

Independence is all very well but it is surely irresponsible of institutions to use it.

The QAA, which is obviously too feeble a dog to keep those wild professors in check, needs a snarl. A QAA with added Ofsted. An Ofdon, perhaps.

It is slightly depressing to witness a sector being hauled over the coals because it has chosen to be honest about its failings. The problems raised by Mr Williams and Professor Alderman deserve to be aired. They deserve to be addressed.

To have the sector's concerns met by inchoate and slightly hysterical suggestions for more oversight, particularly from a body not traditionally known for its love of outside supervision - now, that really is silly.

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