A fearless arbiter of competing interests

February 7, 1997

Christopher Kenyon, newly appointed chairman of the higher education quality agency, sets out his agenda. As the squeeze on higher education funding tightens inexorably with no foreseeable prospect of relaxation, at least as far as taxpayers' money is concerned, so the twin issues of quality and standards are brought into ever sharper focus. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, both national and international, institutions are required to place increasing emphasis on precisely what it is they have to offer and on how they can successfully deliver it.

The new quality assurance agency will take its cue from the final report of the Joint Planning Group which has created it. The JPG was clear in its view of the purposes of quality assurance and there are some significant implications in what it wrote. "We believe that the prime responsibility of an external quality assurance agency should be to support higher education institutions in discharging their responsibility for the maintenance and enhancement of the quality and standards of their education provision. Students, both within and beyond the United Kingdom, need to know about the quality and standards of educational provision in an increasingly diverse higher education sector. So do employers, who recruit graduates, the taxpayer and Parliament, which has placed on the funding bodies a statutory responsibility to ensure proper accountability for the use of public funds."

First, there is a presumption that it is the institutions which have the responsibility for protecting and, most importantly, enhancing their own quality and their own standards. This is fundamental. It seems possible that the Dearing report, when it reaches its increasingly expectant audience later this year, will have something to say about minimum standards and a national framework, but surely it is true that real and lasting quality can only come from within. That being so, it is the duty of an external agency to monitor, and, if necessary, to exhort with a robust but relatively light touch, and to use its scarce resources to best effect by allocating at least some of these to the further and broader objectives of enhancement, through the encouragement of innovation and best practice, and of generally promoting, both here and overseas, the strengths of our higher education.

Second, the JPG rightly emphasises the importance both of the students, who are of course the immediate beneficiaries of the whole exercise, and of their prospective employers. Students and employers equally need to make informed choices. Students require clear and comparable information as to what they are being offered and what will be expected of them. Employers require a parallel range of information to guide them in their own graduate selection processes. This raises the wider issues of "graduateness" and "employability", both incapable of measurement in purely curricular terms, but nevertheless issues which we need to think hard about in the national interest and on which an external agency should be expected to develop a view.

Third, the JPG touches on the unavoidable question of proper accountability for the use of taxpayers' funds. It is through the funding councils that Parliament and Government exercise their prerogatives in this regard and the new agency will have to ensure that it continues to satisfy all parties. There will be an important element of continuity as the work of the Higher Education Quality Council and of the assessment divisions of the funding councils is absorbed into the new agency. Much has been achieved since 1992 in developing and refining the processes of both assessment and audit, and in defining what we all mean when we talk either about quality or about the more complex issue of standards. Clearly there is a momentum to be maintained, but there is also an opportunity for any perceived weaknesses in the processes to be addressed and for judgements to be made, particularly about standards, which so far have not been made.

The task of the new agency will not be easy. It has to get itself up and running as a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, with a board of directors and a chief executive. It must then concentrate on managing a sensible and sensitive bringing together of the present arrangements for both assessment and audit, while stimulating and leading further debate with a view to taking firm and clear decisions about the best way forward for an integrated system of quality assurance. There will be some streamlining, but there should be no great expectation of economies for their own sake if the agency is to have the chance to make a serious contribution to protecting and strengthening the performance and reputation of higher education.

The fate of the agency will depend not only on the quality of its own output but also critically on the degree of independence it can achieve as it strives to balance a range of competing interests. The funders and the funded, the teachers and the learners, the career providers and the career seekers, all of them, from whichever angle of vision, can be expected to look to the agency for the endorsement and the reinforcement of both quality and standards. To meet its obligations the agency, while all too conscious of the constraints and pressures under which staff are having to operate, must be fearless in what it does and says.

Christopher Kenyon is chairman of Manchester University council and a member of the HEQC.

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