A case of quantity over quality

August 9, 2002

We need more enhancement and a little less regulation in quality assurance, argues Roger Brown.

A major obstacle to developing higher education is the imbalance between regulation and improvement. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's recent announcement that it is establishing a committee to review the roles of agencies concerned with quality enhancement provides an opportunity to address this.

We have just been celebrating the success of the abolition of the old binary line. One of the reasons for that success was that the polytechnics enjoyed the support - although they did not always see it in that light - of a number of bodies whose concern was with their development. Chief among these was the Council for National Academic Awards, which combined its accountability responsibilities with an enhancement role, in particular through conducting research into teaching and learning and disseminating information about best practice. When the binary line came to an end, the Higher Education Quality Council carried on this role. With the replacement of the HEQC by the Quality Assurance Agency, however, the balance of quality assurance shifted to accountability - and there it has remained.

Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing was aware of this imbalance but his committee's proposal for an Institute for Learning and Teaching with a wide range of functions was in effect pre-empted, both by Hefce, which established its own initiatives in this area, and by what is now the Higher Education Staff Development Agency. Under its previous chief executive, Hesda gained National Training Organisation status under the noses of its sponsors, a role that might otherwise have been the ILT's.

The net result is that while the forces of accountability in the sector - not only the QAA but also the regulation practised by bodies such as the funding councils, the Teacher Training Agency, the National Health Service etc - are strong, those devoted to improvement, including the promotion of innovation, are fragmented. This fragmentation seems likely to get worse as various bodies compete to provide leadership services to the sector.

No one disputes the many challenges that face UK higher education institutions. Some of these are peculiar to higher education, others are common to the public sector. In many cases the response has been to establish a single agency to support providers' efforts to cope with these challenges. Such agencies often combine the enhancement of services with the strengthening of leadership and management.

A case in point is the NHS Modernisation Agency. The agency's core business includes the development of clinical and managerial skills; building improvement across the NHS; supporting the redesign of care; leading initiatives to aid service improvements; designing programmes to spread best practice; helping under-performing organisations; identifying and evaluating innovation; and transferring learning. The agency also incorporates a centre to support leadership development across the NHS. The centre's role is not to provide training but to help define and promote leadership at all levels. It covers all categories of staff and not just the professional equivalent of lecturers.

Are there lessons here for higher education? If there are, is it too late, ten years after the demise of the CNAA and five years on from Dearing, to absorb them? Or will we have yet further fragmentation and duplication as the various bodies and agencies jockey to protect their positions?

Roger Brown, principal of the Southampton Institute, is a member of the Hefce committee reviewing agencies that deal with quality enhancement. He writes in a personal capacity.

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