Artificial flavour

June 9, 2011

Roger Brown offers a dystopian vision of the future of higher education in the light of forthcoming policy changes ("Quality street blues", 2 June). Many in the sector will share his pessimism.

The biggest problem facing the management of quality, according to much research in the field over the past 20 years, is the perceived artificiality of quality assurance processes. For many academics, they are seen as burdensome extras, to be responded to only through ritualised compliance.

Quality assurance fails to be a part of the everyday activity of academics because they perceive no link between the performance embodied in its processes and the quality of their teaching and research.

For quality to become part of the lived experience of all higher education stakeholders, it needs to become a fundamental part of what is done in the sector. A genuine culture of quality is necessary. However, there is always a tension between quality as ritual and quality as it is owned by academics. It should be more than "feeding the beast".

However, there is much to be positive about in the development of quality processes over the past two decades. While external processes could be better aligned to everyday academic activity and internal processes are still developing, quality assurance has delivered clear documentation and greater transparency.

Attempts to push a consumerist approach on to the sector have been met with indifference from many, and while there are increasing social demands being placed on the academy, there remains a strong commitment to autonomy, independence and academic freedom, which quality assurance procedures sometimes rub up against.

James Williams, Associate editor, Quality in Higher Education, Birmingham City University

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