Not a quality job by QAA

April 16, 2009

The suggestion that a reconstituted Council for National Academic Awards should monitor university standards is an excellent one ("An Ofqual, not a QAA, is needed for standards", 2 April).

Now that I have retired, I am immune to the "fear" with which Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, seeks to impose his will on universities - whatever happened to rational argument? I can therefore express opinions that, in my experience, are shared by the academic community.

The QAA has never assessed the quality of university courses and has never claimed to. But it is guilty of not correcting the impression in the press that that is what it does. What it does is assess the paperwork by which a university measures its own quality, which is a very different thing. A better title would be the "Quality Assurance Assurance Agency".

The process of assessment is an exercise in box-ticking. Degree courses must be split into short bites with "aims" and "objectives" for each lecture. Reports on every student must be filed after every supervision. The QAA has never demonstrated that there is any connection between this process and the quality of courses.

Concepts such as "enthusiasm", "originality" or "inspiration" are totally absent from the QAA's way of thinking. Lest anyone doubt this, it is only necessary to look at the fatuous "benchmarking" scheme by which the QAA tried to reduce every degree course in the country to a four-by-five matrix. The vertical axis contained items such as "transferable skills". No explanation was given for what a "non-transferable skill" was, or, if it existed, the point of teaching it. The other axis contained things such as "can read and understand the concepts being taught". From my recollection, this qualified the student for an honours degree. This absurd enterprise sank without trace, but not before a great deal of time and money had been wasted on it.

The QAA would make a good job of assessing courses for apprentice plumbers, but should not be allowed anywhere near a university.

Archie Campbell, Cambridge.

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