Strike balance on quality checks 1

April 5, 2002

It is a pity that Michael Loughlin is so unrelievedly cynical about quality reforms in higher education (Features, THES , March 22). True, there have been a succession of quality fads and a good deal of jargon. However, to claim that quality "authors and commentators invariably reject rigorous analysis" is patently false, as is the statement that "a coherent explanation" is "conspicuously absent".

The fact that Loughlin makes the analogy with financial audit from which to argue shows that he has missed the point. His comments are also UK-centric. They do not apply, for example, to the United States, where institutions introduced accreditation for their own purposes years ago. Accreditation there has been subject to much change to re-establish its relevance and value.

Much of the external quality checking introduced over the past 20 years has been a direct reaction to academic arrogance that tended to say "we know best; we are not interested in feedback from the outside world; just give us the money and go away". Whenever an error needs to be corrected, there is a tendency to over-correct. This is what the United Kingdom has witnessed over the past ten years and this seems to be being redressed.

The Australian Universities Quality Agency was established last year. While acknowledging that institutions would generally have preferred this not to have happened, nonetheless, the agency's approach is reducing opposition. The approach is to put the institution, its objectives, needs, plans and self-monitoring at the centre of the process. AUQA audit then becomes an occasional look over the institutional shoulder rather than an intrusive and irrelevant hurdle. Academics can concentrate on what they do best - but ensuring that they are doing it as well as possible - and should have no need to waste their time in challenging "the nonsense at every opportunity".

David Woodhouse
Executive director
Australian Universities Quality Agency

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