Letter: How the screw was put in scrutiny (1)

August 31, 2001

In a letter in March, I argued for an audit scheme (Letters, THES , March 30). This idea has indeed been accepted and forms the basis of the current consultative paper. But the basic Quality Assurance Agency principles have clearly not been changed and the proposed audit will be just as adversarial as the previous assessment has been.

Universities have shown themselves adept at handling such an approach to their advantage, and the fact that power rests almost entirely with the government and funding councils has not prevented this. What is needed is a way to "heal the quality rift" (Leader, THES , August 24), but this cannot be done through simply creating an independent agency.

What is needed is a collegial approach, in which the auditors act as consultants and not as judges, similar to the practice in the Netherlands. Only in this way can the essential mutual trust be created where universities are professionally responsible for maintaining and enhancing quality, while the audit ensures that the trust is not abused.

To achieve this aim, the proposed audit must not be concerned primarily with quality assurance, but with quality enhancement, the practice of which would lead to quality assurance. The main features to be audited might then be the management structures and practices for quality enhancement of a university. Appropriate indicators might be the presence of effective staff appraisal and development, the encouragement of innovations, effective change management and recognition and reward schemes for teaching excellence. Many universities may be found wanting in these but without them there can be no quality enhancement.

This may lead to an indirect way of informing students and employers that a particular course is of high quality, but it will have the advantage of being underwritten by professionals who want to achieve excellence in what they are doing, in contrast to imposed schemes that match bureaucratically some predetermined templates.

As a result of the false starts of the teaching quality assessment and the QAA, the two sides, universities and whatever agency there is going to be, are far apart. Both sides must be prepared to negotiate.

We should use the opportunity created by the appointment of a new QAA chief executive to withdraw the present consultation paper and start a discussion of principles.

If this does not happen, then it is likely that the agency will win de jure and the universities de facto , with students and employers suffering.

Lewis Elton
University College London

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