Flawed Hefce report skirts some key issues

October 15, 2009

An open letter to Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, regarding his report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's sub-committee for Teaching, Quality and the Student Experience ("'Radical change' is needed to reassure public on standards", 1 October).

We have read the report of your sub-committee, and offer the following comments. You state in your executive summary that "the greatest need ... is for more accessible public information about quality and standards, and about the wider student experience". Regrettably, we do not believe that your report makes this case. This letter explains why. Our concerns are both methodological and substantive.

On methodology, your report does not take account of the recent House of Commons Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills report on students and universities. Moreover, while the select committee received evidence from a wide range of sources, yours received evidence from only a narrow range of bodies, each of which, incidentally, has an interest in protecting the status quo.

Paragraph 65 of your main report admits that it was not possible to carry out the necessary research in the time available, but that Hefce officers would be pleased to consider other work that is brought to their attention. Frankly, this is just not good enough for a body funded by the taxpayer on an issue of such importance.

On substance, the concerns that gave rise to your report, to the select committee's report and to the Quality Assurance Agency's "thematic inquiries" report reflect a number of issues. Some of these are of relatively recent origin; others are of much longer standing.

They include the admission and retention of inadequately prepared students (not only from overseas); evidence of managerial interference with academic judgments to protect institutional resources and/or reputation; grade inflation; the increasing inability of the external-examiner system to secure either comparability of standards or fairness to students; and severe weaknesses in assessment and feedback to students. All of this is in the context of an expanded and diversified system in which the present pressures of competition for students, resources and reputation can only increase.

In this context, some of the report's proposals are certainly helpful. There can be no doubt that institutions should be more open and explicit about their arrangements for protecting quality and standards, and the procedures and evidence that enable them to determine that these are appropriate (this was also the main theme of the extensive programme of work on academic standards carried out by the former Higher Education Quality Council more than a decade ago).

Similarly, it is obviously sensible for students to receive far more information about what they can expect in terms of things such as contact hours, alongside guidance about their obligations as junior members of learning communities (although it has taken some time for the vice-chancellors to move to this position).

It is also timely, given that it is now several years since Teaching Quality Information was conceived, to look more closely at user information (provided that it is not based on the mistaken notion that students can ever be well-informed consumers of economic theory).

But the report simply skates around some of the most important issues. In particular:

  • The issue with external examining is not only, or so much, independence of judgment, but also how far it is feasible, or even desirable, in a diverse, mass system to have valid and reliable judgments about comparability
  • The recommendations on assessment are quite inadequate (Mantz Yorke's recent paper for the QAA shows very clearly some of the limitations of most institutional-assessment systems, exacerbated by degree classification)
  • The recommendations concerning auditing do not go to the heart of the matter, namely how the interaction between managerial, resourcing and academic decisions should be regulated to protect academic judgments about quality and standards.

The report refers to a review of external examining and a consultation on auditing. If this report is anything to go by, these exercises will be largely ineffectual in addressing the issues we have referred to.

We are copying this letter to Peter Luff, chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, and are making it available to the media.

Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history, University of Buckingham; Roger Brown, professor and co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development, Liverpool Hope University.

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