A good jolt to system

February 20, 2004

The hated subject review set UK institutions on a beneficial 'quality curve', argues Peter Williams.

Abolition of the teaching quality assessment was at the top of every vice-chancellor's wish list during the 1990s and the first item on the agenda in any meeting with ministers. It ended in Wales in 1997, in Scotland in 1998 and in England and Northern Ireland in 2001. The memory of it may soon be no more than a Cheshire cat's smile, or the stuff of endless reminiscence by senior common room bores. Before that happens, though, the Quality Assurance Agency is publishing an overview of the 2,904 reviews and assessments it carried out in England and Northern Ireland between 1993 and 2001. Many of their findings remain valid indicators of good and not-so-good practices and are still useful today.

The message is clear: subject review forced the academic community to take a systematic, careful and valuable look at its teaching activities in a way it had never had to do before. That is not to say that higher education had been unconcerned about teaching before 1993. But it was the first time, certainly for the more venerable institutions, that professors, readers and lecturers had been required to account to external peers for their teaching practices. Discounting those sent away on gardening leave or convenient international conferences at the time of a visit, subject review touched the vast majority of academics. It was undoubtedly a culture shock.

Despite the hostility that surrounded the project, the story that emerged from the work of 5,700 peer reviewers was one of generally high quality in all subjects, with satisfied students and a level of commitment from teachers that was remarkable in the face of ever-increasing workloads and declining resources. The number of subject reviews leading to a judgement of "unsatisfactory" or "not approved" was vanishingly small.

Perhaps if subject review had used a less inspectorial approach in its early days, the disaffection with the process would not have reached the depths that it did. What ultimately rendered it a non-runner as a long-term answer to external quality assurance was its cost and overhead burden to institutions; the adoption of "grades" that could be readily translated into league tables; the insistence on the observation of teaching; and the rapid decline in the usefulness of its information over time. It is remarkable that some newspapers appear to be using TQA judgements reached in 1994 to inform their opinions of the comparative quality of universities and colleges today.

Realistically there could be no encore for subject review. Universal visiting was too expensive, open to "management" by win-at-all-cost competitive institutions and politically not worth a continuing row.

Diminishing returns were becoming apparent as institutions learnt ways of ensuring good scores. The move to new audit arrangements in England in 2001 was inevitable, well worth the "transitional period" trade-off, insisted on by government, which has included the "discipline audit trails" within institutional audit as well as the subject-focused "developmental engagements" - seen as unpublished practice runs.

But that move would not have been so readily acceptable to the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Education and Skills if subject reviews had not helped to develop a sturdy "quality culture" within institutions. And, whatever the limitations of the processes used, they did provide the necessary evidence that there wasn't much wrong with quality in English higher education. It was this evidence that allowed the shift from subject-based reviews to institutionally based audits, "repatriating" responsibility for standards and quality to universities and colleges.

Subject review, in a modified form, continues in those further education colleges where higher education is financed directly by Hefce. There it is also creating an evidence base that will duly provide the confidence for less intensive scrutiny. Meanwhile, it offers valued advice and expertise.

Two final ironies: first, while the UK was abandoning subject-level reviews as the basis for its external quality assurance, a counter-move arose elsewhere in Europe, driven by the Bologna process, for national accreditation of individual programmes; and second, colleagues in the QAA have recently reported conversations with academics who are expressing regret at the passing of subject reviews. Nostalgia for a golden age, perhaps, or a retro-chic future for Euro-TQA?

Peter Williams is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education.

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