Assessment and audit in disrepute

October 27, 1994

The University of Wolverhampton has become the first higher education institution to receive a Government Charter Mark for its high quality services. Apparently Cabinet office assessors were impressed with the university's range of courses, its commitment to widening higher education access to disadvantaged groups, its sophisticated complaints procedure and its production of user-friendly literature.

Wolverhampton is also the first institution to be awarded BS5750, an International and European Quality Standard. This followed intensive work on its academic and administrative processes, and its governance system, involving students, staff and governors.

At the same time, the University of Luton is the first university to be awarded Investors in People.

In the meantime, the rest of us engage in increasingly fractious argument about quality assessment and quality audit. Should there be two separate organisations responsible for audit and assessment? If not, are the two organisations to be merged, and would a new body be accountable to the funding council or to universities?

Anecdotes about the quality assessment exercise abound. Colleagues are amazed at the poor standard of some assessments, and at assessors with little understanding, let alone sympathy, for different approaches to university education.

There are problems with the apparent implausibility of some of the observations made on visits. There is questioning of the benchmarks against which assessments are made, few of which are articulated and which relate not to some ideal of higher education.

The audit is also criticised. For too much emphasis on the quality of documentation, not enough time spent thinking through the educational process, and practice. An attempt to develop error-free systems, and then a tendency to be sceptical of risk taking and innovation. All of this is then added to by rumours about the future cost of quality assessment and audit. It has been suggested each institution might have to provide the equivalent of two full-time members of staff per year per subject in order to carry out these exercises, At a time when teaching and learning is being cut by a minimum of 14 per cent (excluding staffing costs) it is unbelievable that this level of resource should be required for quality management. Quite how cutting funding from institutions is going to improve quality and put more resources into teaching and learning remains a mystery to me.

There is so little confidence in quality audit and quality assessment that maybe it is time we in the institutions got together and refused to co-operate with the two systems.

And maybe we should follow Wolverhampton and Luton. Maybe the funding council should require that each university or college has to apply for and obtain BS5750 or Investors in People, together with an improved external examiner system and professional body accreditation.

We might even be able to afford to pay external examiners properly, and put more money into teaching and learning if we stopped spending so much on quality assessment and audit. Perhaps, for once, we should look to nationally and internationally recognised quality management accreditation.

Not only might this satisfy our forecast critics externally, but it might also make more sense for those of us struggling to survive on up to 25 per cent less resource over the next three years.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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