Back to the future to verify standards

August 20, 2009

Your recent leader makes some telling points ("Standards issue can't be evaded", 6 August). It ends with the statement: "An independent, robust body that safeguards standards and protects the interests of hard-working academics should be welcomed."

But we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Short memories seem to be endemic in higher education, as elsewhere. The Quality Assurance Agency (and its precursor, the English funding council's Quality Assurance Division) carried out a comprehensive review of all programmes and subjects in all English, Welsh and Scottish universities between 1993 and 2001. At its heart was a thorough investigation of "standards".

It was a robust system - witness, for example, its unearthing of slipshod standards in a prestigious communication and media programme at the University of Leeds in 1997. It was credible, with a significant element of peer review moderated by independent-review chairs. It did not endanger academic freedom, but demanded the accountability that is its necessary corollary in a democratic society.

Sadly, this came to an end in 2001 thanks to an unholy alliance of university vice-chancellors (who had never been enthusiastic about reviewers crawling over their campuses), and Education Secretary David Blunkett, who wanted their acquiescence to a number of Labour U-turns, including top-up and tuition fees. As a result, subject review was abandoned in favour of a process-driven and weaker system of institutional audit.

Only by returning to subject-based external scrutiny will we be able to verify university standards.

Alan Nisbett, Devon.

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