A system poisoned by deceit

October 4, 2002

The dishonesty at the heart of the QAA has left a legacy of institutionalised lies, say Bruce Charlton and Peter Andras

The record of the Quality Assurance Agency has until now been one of failure. This is widely accepted, with the only debate being over its reform or abolition. The root of this failure can be traced back to a very early stage in its implementation when the decision was made to tell a lie.

Huge unfunded expansion of higher education necessarily involves a substantial and deliberate devaluation of degrees and a decline in per-capita provision. In these circumstances, the proper function of a national university teaching inspectorate is to guarantee a minimum academic standard - the lie was that the QAA would improve teaching.

The point is that substantial degree inflation was not an accidental by-product of education policy. It was necessary for the successful implementation of the intended education policy - educational expansion would have failed without degree inflation.

The objectives of expansion are controversial but defensible. If they were attained, the average university graduate would have a much lower academic attainment, but the average output standard of the educational system as a whole would rise substantially. With proper safeguards, this could be beneficial to economic growth and to the process of social "modernisation" in general.

The problem for a national system of university inspection was to control degree inflation, to prevent it from resulting in hyper-inflation, a total collapse of standards and meaningless degrees. In a nutshell, the proper role of a national teaching inspectorate was to prevent universities from admitting almost anyone, teaching them almost nothing and then giving them a degree anyway.

The QAA should have been concerned not with "teaching" as the word is generally understood but rather with guaranteeing that universities exercised a minimum selectivity in admissions and exams, and provided a minimum level of educational provision, that is, facilities and supervision.

But the link between educational expansion and lower standards and provision was never defended nor even acknowledged. This evasive dishonesty by the government was understandable from a public-relations perspective - but, as often happens, one lie breeds another. Because its true function was denied, the QAA was in the position of using quality-assurance auditing to perform a function for which it was fundamentally unsuited - to raise standards.

This led to the further absurdity of using audit to award differential grades. Properly speaking, there are only two rational outcomes of a completed audit - pass or fail. Either the books balance or they do not. But because it claimed to evaluate "teaching", the QAA needed to generate a spurious numerical grade.

Auditing works best when the data sampled are stable, objective and quantifiable. But the QAA tried to measure variables that were inflating, subjective and qualitative. This made its validity unverifiable. If the QAA had stuck to enforcing a minimum standard, it would have been straightforward to construct a simple and swift audit of university selectivity and provision. This could have sampled only information that reached a high standard of objective quantifiability, such as staff-to-student ratios and class sizes.

Instead, the QAA measured all kinds of intangible factors that relied on subjective judgement. The resulting dependence on inspectorial whim contributed greatly to the intimidating and humiliating aspects of QAA visitations.

Dishonesty and hype are a seductive temptation for politicians in a hurry, yet the failure of the QAA is a classic case of how short-term political expediency can sabotage long-term policy aims. And its legacy is not merely the time and money wasted - but the institutionalisation of lies in a system whose raison d'être should be truthfulness.

Bruce Charlton and Peter Andras teach at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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