We must move away from false comparisons, while guaranteeing minimum standards, says Michael Scott
Michelangelo once addressed a group of students about perception. He went to an entirely white wall and painted a black spot in its centre.
"What do you see?" he asked.
"A black spot," they replied.
"What I see," he said, "is an expanse of white."
I have sympathy for the Quality Assurance Agency. Chief executive John Randall and his colleagues have been unfairly pulled one way and another by a sector apparently unsure of its identity and of the measures of its quality.
Yet most institutions feel confident in the standards of their awards. The former Higher Education Quality Council and Higher Education Funding Council (England) quality assessment division found that the sector was in adequate shape despite financial constraints and despite press criticism.
There have been notable exceptions to the satisfactory reports, discovered and exposed by quality checks. Some unscrupulous commentators have rummaged through HEFCE publications selecting critical sentences and then dramatising them for a good story. Gradually the criticism should turn into praise as the experiment in mass higher education is proved to be working.
Mr Randall and colleagues have now arrived at the point where there is a need to conceptualise measures of standard. The public has to be convinced that proper benchmarks are being set. What is required is a set of level descriptors for certificates, diplomas and degrees that will guarantee minimum standards.
It will be easier to achieve in subjects that are already vetted by professional bodies. It will be harder in conceptual areas. The trials in chemistry, law and history already demonstrate that progress is being made.
If the classification system survives, it will eventually be necessary to extend such descriptors into the honours levels.
As important a challenge relates to value added. So far the sector has not convincingly found a way to evaluate input data, with progression evidence and output data. If a student enters a university with grade As at A level and leaves with a lower second, has that university failed him/her? If a mature student enters, following an access course and leaves with a degree, guaranteed to have met national minimum threshold standards, has not his/her university been successful? How does the country reward value?
Accountability is the essence. The press like league tables but they can be misleading. To compare some of our oldest universities with some of the newest is to engage in an erroneous exercise. The mission and input quality will be different even if the minimum output standards are guaranteed, through benchmarking, to be the same.
The vice-chancellors of some of our medieval universities have objected to an audit of their processes. They have a great deal to lose. Oxbridge failings would hit the headlines and could be damaging nationally. Yet Oxbridge, Glasgow and others are as accountable as any institution receiving public funds.
Their vice-chancellors complain that some of the Quality Assurance Agency assessors would not be good enough academically to review their processes. There is a danger in such assertions. Critics, the public and lesser artists than Michelangelo can evaluate his work.
Yet perhaps one answer to Oxbridge fears is for cluster audits, which recognise the distinctive mission of different universities and judge their excellence according to individualised as well as general criteria.
Colleagues from Harvard or Yale could join British teams reviewing the progress and value-added elements of United Kingdom ancient universities. Similarly, colleagues from Virginia State University or Miami Dade could join home teams considering the quality of our community institutions.
This would be a means of moving away from false comparisons of apples with pears while guaranteeing the uniformity of the minimum standard.
Our university sector should be second to none. If one university is defective then its reputation affects all others. Our challenge is to evaluate all fairly according to national criteria and individual mission. Until there is a general respect for the mission of all the UK's universities our education system will falter.
We need to be aware of black spots but to publicise the expanse of white. League tables should be replaced by comparative narratives that endorse national policy.
The QAA, thereby, has the responsibility to move on from HEQC and HEFCE to show evidence of the quality of our systems and/or institutions whether new or old and to do so against articulated criteria, national standards and individual missions.
Michael Scott is a pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.