Letter: Guard of honour

May 18, 2001

We should resist the temptation to join the bash-the-Quality-Assurance-Agency bandwagon (Letters, THES , May 4). University staff are asked to describe what is included in a degree and how the candidate will be assessed.

For many, that has been an extremely useful learning experience. For others, it could only ever be a distracting bureaucratic game. Since universities, ironically, eschew any significant teacher training for teaching staff, it is as well that some agency asks them to act as reflective practitioners from time to time.

That hard work remains to be done to retrieve the standing of UK universities is nowhere more obvious than in the widespread resistance to the determination - led by John Randall - to cut out the continued abuse of academic titles for market purposes.

Of course, to remove the masters titles from conversion degrees one must begin with that most lucrative of programmes, the MBA.

There is only one argument to be applied to conversion masters and it begins by asking teachers of such schemes a simple question: "Where is the slack?" If an able but ordinary student can acquire in one year the skills, knowledge and understanding that would otherwise require three years' undergraduate plus one year's postgraduate work, where is the bluff? There are only two logical possibilities. The first is that the knowledge base and so on for, say, business administration or computer science is so slim that it really can be mastered in one year. The second is that, in fact, this "masters degree" is no more than a broad introduction to the field. "Graduateness", possessed by most of the target audience, obviously allows some measure of compression to make such courses relatively intense. Nevertheless, for the ordinary candidate, that advantage could not cover, fully, four years of subject learning.

Having been dragged into the marketplace, UK institutions face enormous pressure to sell their produce, whether it is research or degrees. To sell the former threatens genuine academic autonomy and selling the latter is an abuse of national trust. A bureaucracy cannot instil or replace integrity. Integrity, like quality, is an acquired habit, but it has to begin with a determination to offer, only and in honesty, the best that one can. If institutions fail to show such determination, the government is obliged to set a guard over them. If the QAA cannot achieve a suitable independence, it may be necessary to move to an HMI approach.

Andrew Morgan

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