Departments: the ideal units of quality assessment

The standards of research and teaching would be best protected by department-based reviews, argues Roger Brown

February 5, 2015

Departmental review, by looking at all the activities in which staff are engaged and how they are managed, would be more rigorous

Universities face a historic opportunity – and one that may not recur. Together, the publication of the funding councils’ consultation on the future of quality assessment and early inquests on the 2014 research excellence framework present the sector with the chance to create more efficient and effective arrangements for protecting the quality of UK higher education.

Since sector-wide quality assurance of teaching was introduced in 1992, higher education has undergone at least six rounds of audit, assessment and institutional review. The current cycle is due to end in 2017. While the Quality Assessment Review Steering Group’s discussion paper The Future of Quality Assessment in Higher Education poses some good and timely questions about the process, fundamental change to the present framework seems unlikely.

Similarly, the REF is the seventh such exercise since the mid-1980s, yet already discussions are beginning about the next one in 2020. Whether this will be a good use of the sector’s resources then, even if it is now, is open to question.

Seen in any kind of historical perspective, the two processes suffer from similar deficiencies.

The original aims have been fulfilled – amply so. The introduction of research assessment exercises led to a rationalisation of activity such that there is now a heavy concentration of funding on a few institutions. Audit and assessment, meanwhile, have obliged every university to increase the focus on teaching. But with each cycle, the outcomes of both research and quality assessment grow increasingly marginal; now, the effort expended far exceeds any improvements in quality or efficiency.

Meanwhile, other important areas in which universities engage – third stream activities such as knowledge transfer, adult education and civic engagement – are left out or are covered only indirectly.

Above all, having separate review processes fails to take account of how teaching, research and many other things are actually organised and delivered in institutions and drives a wedge between them. It fails to examine the vital linkages between teaching and research that are the only real justification for conducting teaching and research together.

It is time for a new approach, one that focuses on the academic unit responsible for delivering both teaching and research – usually the university department.

There are various ways in which this could be done. One would be through some form of departmental review, conducted by institutions using a mixture of internal and external peers, to an agreed, sector-wide template. The review outcomes – identifying strengths and weaknesses and good practice – would be reported to the institution by the vice-chancellor as chief academic officer through the senate or the academic board and governing body. The periodic institutional review process would then assess and report on the extent to which the institution had used the departmental reviews to raise quality and standards, not only of students’ academic attainment and staff research, but also of third stream activities.

Rigour need not be sacrificed in such a system. Key to any quality assessment process are the standards adopted by the assessors and the scope for subterfuge by the assessed. By looking at all the activities in which staff are engaged and how they are managed, departmental review would be more demanding. And if concerns were raised about research in a particular discipline, for example, or about how institutions handled specific issues such as off-campus learning, there could still be sector-wide enquiries.

In working with the grain of institutional organisation, quality assurance would become more accessible and more meaningful to many more academics, who tend to see the process as an annoying impediment to their job.

Finally, by emphasising strengths and good practice, and eschewing gradings, departmental review would focus on enhancement, which all the evidence shows to be the best route to better quality and higher standards.

There is nothing new in these suggestions: similar ideas were discussed in the 1990s. Since then, we have learned from two decades of research and quality assessment. It is surely time to move on.

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