Letter: Free of straitjacket

December 21, 2000

Frank Furedi makes two common mistakes among critics of quality assurance agencies ("Institutions wither in the quality straitjacket", Soapbox, THES, November 24).

First, he lumps all external assessment under the term "audit". Second, he identifies the negative consequences of an "audit culture" but ignores the fact that consequences are not inevitable but depend on how assessment is carried out.

New Zealand's Academic Audit Unit, set up in 1994, conducts academic quality audits of universities. Quality audit is defined by the International Standards Organisation as a structured investigation that begins with an organisation's objectives, asks whether the plans to achieve those objectives are suitable, checks whether the organisation's activities conform to the plans, and then ascertains whether those activities are effective in achieving the organisation's objectives.

Quality audit, therefore, does not stifle flexibility, innovation or initiative, but encourages the successful pursuit of institutions' own goals. It can strengthen the institution, share good practice, contribute to quality improvement and reassure the public of institutional accountability.

Furedi suggests that the United States is progressing because of the absence of audit. In fact, US institutions are subject to accreditation, and US accrediting agencies are introducing audit-like functions and approaches.

David Woodhouse
Director, Academic Audit Unit
Wellington, New Zealand.

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