Leader: Simple salve to heal the quality rift

August 24, 2001

University leaders may welcome John Randall's departure from the Quality Assurance Agency, but it could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. That will depend on whether ministers consider the new regime, now subject to consultation, sufficiently robust and, if they do not, whether they have the determination to take a radical look at regulation.

It is seldom remembered that the universities own the QAA. That is why Mr Randall is out of a job. He has been his own worst enemy; abrasive, manipulative and too willing to give credence to the notion that universal standards should be applied to a set of widely differing institutions. Codes and rules have multiplied; the academic community has grown adept at playing the game; costs have soared; and unpopularity has given Mr Randall's employers the opportunity to roll back regulation.

Yet Mr Randall was right about some important issues. His proposal that the QAA have the power to recommend removal of degree-awarding powers should not have been so peremptorily dismissed. Plans to professionalise the external examiner system, if flawed, deserved more temperate consideration. And he is right that the proposed audit regime cannot provide the comparative information that potential students need.

Though Liverpool John Moores and others that have come under the QAA's cosh may see Mr Randall's departure as a blessed relief, it is really a victory for the big barons whose universities top the league tables. The newer access universities have much to lose. Restoring international credibility to UK higher education as a whole has been one of the QAA's most tangible achievements.

What next? The Cabinet Office's better-regulation unit was planning to review higher education, but its head, Lord Haskins, is now distracted by the farming crisis, while David Triesman, who was the chief protagonist, has moved to fresh pastures.

The radical solution that might best command public confidence is both simple and explosive - namely an independent accreditation agency with real power. Such an agency, preferably answerable to Parliament, could, for example, recommend removal of degree-awarding powers; grant accreditation to institutions outside the closed set of those funded by the taxpayer; regulate the external examiner system; and specify what data should be published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for all accredited institutions.

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