Leader: Quality requires radical rethink not a quickfix

March 30, 2001

One of the most pressing items in the in-tray of the next secretary of state for education will be the vexed question of quality assurance in higher education.

Alan Ryan, Lewis Elton, Roderick Floud, the London School of Economics and Natfhe are not isolated mavericks. Discontent is so widespread that ministers have felt it necessary to intervene with reassurances that the Quality Assurance Agency's "light touch" will mean a 40 per cent reduction in time, cost and aggravation, and Universities UK and the English Funding Council are trying to make that happen.

Teaching quality assessment does need to be less onerous. As our detailed analysis shows, the process is expensive and flawed. But the issue is much larger than the TQA and cannot be resolved with a quick fix agreed behind closed doors by the funding council and universities, and imposed on the Quality Assurance Agency in a febrile pre-election atmosphere. The whole towering structure of qualification frameworks, benchmarks, thresholds and codes of practice, which remains in place, is what really galls. Merely reducing the frequency of teaching inspections for top-scoring institutions may damp down rebellion in the short term, but it will not constitute a robust system for quality assurance across higher education for the long term.

New ministers and a new Parliament could provide the opportunity to take a cool look at the whole spectrum of regulation in higher education, to define what kind of quality assurance regime or regimes are needed to satisfy the requirements of accountability, information and enhancement, and to devise the most cost-effective means of delivery. History suggests that such a review should not be left in the hands of either the universities or the politicians and the agencies they appoint to distribute public money. Relying on these sources of wisdom has produced the present muddle. Universities have sought, over more than a decade, to do as little as possible consistent with keeping the government off their backs. Governments have, in consequence, become increasingly frustrated and meddlesome.

Shoddy practices, particularly in overseas franchises, have justified increasing intervention. Spending cuts have made it politically necessary to demonstrate that quality was nonetheless being safeguarded. The Dearing committee loaded the quality regime with new responsibilities for standardising higher education in the United Kingdom. The QAA, charged with carrying out all this, has tried to satisfy many masters while being the servant of none. The result is a regime that is overelaborate and tries to satisfy a huge range of purposes, from providing students and employers with better information to enhancing the quality of teaching. The structure has become ever more baroque, ever more expensive and is collapsing under its own weight.

The Association of University Teachers is right to suggest that the best place to locate such a review would be with the Cabinet Office's better regulation unit. This would allow some independence from those who are most directly involved and would bring to bear wider perspectives. There is now a huge mass of data and experience available to inform such a review. We know from the TQA, however flawed, that there is no major Dickensian-type scandal lurking in our universities. There are other models of quality assessment, particularly the one that has been developed by the European rectors, from which lessons can be learnt. With goodwill, it should at last be possible to devise a robust and independent means of assessing quality in higher education that is proportionate to need and that respects the autonomy of institutions.

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