Letter: QAA: a lesson in losing friends (1)

April 20, 2001

David Blunkett has effectively told the Quality Assurance Agency to pack up its scheme for reviewing standards in higher education before it has begun (News, Letters, THES , April 6). The root of the agency's failure lies in its drive to impose an inspectorate of standards and in its implicit abandonment of the supportive and developmental aspects of the previous quality regime of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

I worked for Hefce when history was reviewed under the teaching quality assessment of the early 1990s. I had opportunities for discussion and debate with colleagues in the universities we visited. As chair of the History Benchmarking Group, I attempted to continue this tradition in our dealings with the QAA. But it became evident that, in pursuing its plans for benchmarking, programme specifications and codes of practice, the last thing the QAA wanted was partnership with academics.

Last summer, I and a colleague from the History at the Universities Defence Group met QAA chiefs John Randall and Christopher Kenyon. It was not a constructive meeting because we were unable to persuade them that there were overwhelming objections in principle to the review scheme.

The present debacle is formally about the burden of review. It is really about whether university teaching and standards should be inspected or purposefully reviewed in a collegial manner conducive to improving quality and standards.

This is where the record of the Institutional Review Directorate, with its more gentle and exploratory audit method, wins all round. This, significantly, has not been slashed. The lessons of the first years of the QAA's existence are clear. It is no wonder that at present it has few friends.

Anthony Fletcher
Professor of English social history
University of London

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