We're the heretics now

October 29, 2009

Peter Williams' comment comparing the language and tone of the recent Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report Students and Universities with the "Spanish Inquisition" was regrettable ("QAA head's parting shot at MPs' 'Spanish Inquisition'", 8 October).

First, it is bad history. The Spanish Inquisition violently enforced orthodoxy. The committee sought to test the assumptions and orthodoxies that have underpinned higher education for decades. We found some of them wanting and not backed by much evidence.

The tone of Williams' comments is at odds with the tenor of his evidence to the committee. He was an excellent witness who was willing to engage with the issues we raised. I am therefore saddened that he has retreated into the all-too-familiar approach adopted by some in the sector to deflect questions. To characterise anyone who queries standards as favouring "monolithic standards-setting" underlines a key message of the report: when faced with evidence of inconsistent standards, there was a marked reluctance in the sector to address the issue directly.

The committee concluded that the Quality Assurance Agency must be radically transformed if the UK is going to meet the needs of a 21st-century higher education system. His outburst makes me worry that the QAA is not up to the job. I hope his successors will be more prepared to question orthodoxy and develop consistent practice and standards with more openness and accountability.

Phil Willis, Chairman, Science and Technology Committee.

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