Letter: QAA alternative exists (1)

March 30, 2001

If the London School of Economics wants to challenge the Quality Assurance Agency ("LSE leads revolt against QAA", THES , March 23), there is no need to draw up an alternative system. Universities set up a very promising scheme in the 1980s, based on academic audit and concerned with quality maintenance and quality enhancement. Instead of putting effort into improving this scheme, the Higher Education Funding Council for England introduced a parallel, far more intrusive and less effective one, the teaching quality assessment. This in due course killed off the audit scheme before itself succumbing and being replaced by the present Quality Assurance Agency.

David Blunkett's proposal to let off those with "good scores" is absurd. All that present inspections measure, when they are reliable, is the extent to which an institution attains its own objectives. In no way is a score therefore an absolute statement, and it is possible for an institution with higher standards and a lower score to be superior to one with a lower standard and a higher score. In addition, the resulting "light touch" proposed by Hefce meets none of the fundamental problems of the present arrangements, even if it possibly reduces the burden on some universities.

Now that serious questions are being asked about the QAA and its approach, let us consider instead an improved audit scheme owned and managed by the universities, in which - as in all audits - it is the quality processes that are audited externally and "audit trails" are used to investigate when suspicions arise. Where the original audit scheme was inadequate was in its too ready acceptance of the status quo in a system that was crying out for change, but the QAA shares this fault. The changed climate of the past decade should ensure that matters such as staff development, the encouragement of innovations, effective change management and reward schemes for teaching excellence will become an important part of any audit. Finally, an audit is not only cheaper and less intrusive than an inspection, but - unlike the Hefce proposals - it is based on trust. It gives academics the responsibility for maintaining and improving quality and discourages the undignified but increasing compliance culture in universities. The external agency would act mainly in cases where there is a suspicion this trust is being abused.

Such an audit scheme might well find a number of prestigious institutions wanting. If properly carried out, it is not an easy option.

Lewis Elton
Professor of higher education
University College London

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