At last. The new quality-assurance regime unveiled this week looks fit for the purpose. The main emphasis will be on institutional audit and departmental review, with external examiners given beefed-up authority at course level, independent external participants involved in departmental reviews and trained outsiders auditing institutions' procedures.
It was evident ten years ago that this was likely to be the most robust model, least conducive to games-playing and most likely to produce continuous improvement and diversity. It has taken vast amounts of time and money to get here, thanks in part to foot-dragging by institutions and academics and in part to the consequent series of unhelpful diversions recommended by the Dearing report. These have left sedimentary layers of benchmarks, thresholds, frameworks and codes of practice that are still supposed to be used and may yet get in the way. But there is now at least the possibility of a robust and flexible system emerging that will provide the public with the assurance it needs that institutions do what they do well, and that builds in mechanisms for change and improvement within those institutions.
Getting political consent for what is in essence self-regulation has not been easy. This week's announcement from the higher education minister still contains phrases about raising standards in higher education that manage to imply that these are lacking, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Additional procedures have had to be built in to satisfy ministerial requirements for public information. How these will work in practice is yet to be seen, but the universities would be most unwise to think that they can be subverted or marginalised. They must be made to work so that potential students, their teachers and parents have some way of assessing the nature and quality of the courses they are considering.
All of this means that the new system is not yet fully formed. It must continue to evolve. It is unlikely to be less time-consuming but it should be better value for money and it should, if it works, make self-regulation politically defensible.