Letter: Just who is Randall kidding?

January 19, 2001

Top-up fees have no place in a publicly funded education system, as most taxpayers would be paying for a club that would not accept them as members. That is a fairness issue, not one of quality.

Similarly, John Randall must have missed a meeting on top-up fees, for the main aim is to charge a rate governed by a course's perceived market value, not by its costs or the quality of the schemes.

Under this system an MBA would cost, say, £4,000 to provide but be priced at £22,000 at Oxford because that is the fee the punter would be prepared to pay. Physics bachelors, by contrast, would cost £12,000 to supply but would be priced at £10,000 because no one wants them. The result would be a long-term national under-funding of science and technology while the perceived "sexy" disciplines flourish.

All sorts of conceptions and misconceptions inform and misinform market values. Some, for example, hold that Oxbridge provides teaching of an unusual and exceptional quality; others that the ability of these institutions to super-select their entrants will mean the teaching can be of indifferent quality but the output will still be very able graduates.

Who knows? Whatever may be the case, it is not the role of the QAA to bolster market perceptions. The QAA exists to assure stakeholders that a degree in x from any UK university represents an acceptable academic performance at the given level. Nothing is more likely to undermine the standing of UK degrees than a claim by the "independent" assessor of quality that some institutions warrant only cursory checking because they are ancient, attract the patronage of the rich and influential and gain the lion's share of government research funding.

The enormous burden of quality assurance was necessary precisely because the universities had grown old and comfortable. The QAA needs to set its criteria and apply the tests for them with complete impartiality. Age and market standing offer few effective guarantees, as the Barings banking fiasco so effectively demonstrated. Quality is about established fitness for purpose.

Does Randall suggest that garages should apply a "lighter touch" MOT to the 40-year-old Rolls-Royce while applying stringent standards to the three-year-old Lada for the same assurance of worthiness?

Andrew J. Morgan

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