A wine for each occasion

August 7, 1998

UK higher education has several brands. Making them uniform would be bland and boring, argues Mike Thorne

IT IS hardly surprising that the Quality Assurance Agency is floundering with the post-Dearing quality agenda. There is confusion across higher education between branding, standing and standards. The task would be much simpler if it was clear which of these we are genuinely seeking to address. But such a bald statement might be unpalatable and undesirable.

Let us suppose that the real agenda is to protect the United Kingdom's international higher education brand. The only truly global UK higher education brands (on a familiarity and favourability par with Microsoft, Coca-Cola and IBM) are Oxford and Cambridge. Recognising this, we can avoid the quality assurance industry that the agency is proposing by simply relabelling every university.

Draw a line straight down the UK from Wick in the north of Scotland to Portsmouth. All universities to the left of the line should be renamed Oxford n and all those to the right of the line Cambridge x. The numbers x and n would be decided according to the given university's relative position in the Times League Table.

Thus Imperial College would be renamed the University of Cambridge II and the University of Derby would become the University of Oxford LX. Worldwide, everyone knows that if it comes from Oxford or Cambridge it must be good and so both Imperial and Derby would be freed from unnecessary quality assurance concerns, and the remaining functions of QAA could be split between Oxford and Cambridge. (An alternative approach would be to badge all the post-1992 universities as "The Open University".) This uncompromisingly French approach, however, is unpalatable, and we have therefore gone for threshold standards that try to pretend (as the French will also tell you) that wine is wine is wine. Clearly this denies the de facto branding of UK universities in the UK student market.

Oxford and Cambridge are the UK's global brand, and this is echoed in the home student market. Let us think of them as claret. Known to everyone, extremely high quality, very old and reassuringly expensive. Newer in the marketplace is a wine that has only really been fashionable for about a decade but which, while being more modestly priced, is certainly not cheap and has a well-deserved reputation for quality: chardonnay. Drunk by the upper middle classes and the upwardly mobile - just the people now turning to Warwick and York.

The rise of chardonnay was no surprise to wine enthusiasts who keep abreast of modern developments. But their focus is now on theOc region in southern France, until recently considered so hot that good wine simply could notbe produced. Australian wine production methods were created precisely to solve this problem, and by importing them, the Oc region is producing wines at the top of wine club lists. It is extremely good value for money, it bears little resemblance to other French wine, and the French wine establishment is unwilling to give a label beyond vin de pays d'Oc to such an upstart. How typical of the modern universities in the UK.

Thinking about the troublesome differences between wines is eliminated if you just buy a brand. Le Piat d'Or will easily outsell most clarets, chardonnays and vins de pays d'Oc by a factor of 100 to one. You know what you are getting every time, and the consumer is saved from making a choice based on such technicalities as the level of tannin, the fruit and sugar content and so on. Yet these are the factors that make wine interesting. Does the QAA really want a network of Piat d'Or universities?

That brings us to Chinese wine. Curiously strong, with an aftertaste not unlike Bovril, it is capable of a description from wine to sherry to liqueur to undrinkable - which probably covers the range of reactions to the University for Industry from the UK university community.

Is it, then, branding, standing or standards that matter? The answer depends on who you are trying to please. If potential students are our concern (and the QAA's programme descriptors are supposed to help inform the market), do we know what they want? I know of no detailed UK-wide study on what information students want and how they would like it presented. For all the customer rhetoric of the quality assurance machine, customer information is in short supply. This compares badly with the detailed market research on demand in east Asia that universities are commissioning.

What do we know about those areas of the market where penetration is lowest?

Knowing the student market would be a natural starting point for the QAA's considerations. But the lack of movement here leads to the conclusion that the customers are not the issue.

Standards can easily be improved: simply exclude more people. That is clearly the approach many would like to see. Another approach would be to test all graduating students independently of their university. This is the thinking behind the Graduate Record Examination being discussed in the United States and Australia - civil service entrance exams writ large. You can standardise the curriculum, which, given that the two global UK higher education brands would thereby be forced to accept each other's views, seems a politically improbable approach.

Hence the agency's focus on subject benchmarking groups. Unfortunately, these confuse standards with standing because in the QAA's own words "members of SBGs drawn from higher education will need to have ... sufficient standing" and "benchmarking groups will produce ... standards".

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' press release supporting the agency's work agreed. "This work is essential to maintaining the standing of higher education both within the UK and overseas. This is at least as important to the sector as it is to other sectors."

The standing of institutions comes from their peer groups, such as the research community, alumni, government and non-government organisations, the world of work; from the vagaries of popular (and government) opinion and from an analytical measure of outputs. At its birth, The Open University had a very low standing because you did not need to pass anything to get into it. Today, its worldwide high standing has been achieved through curriculum innovation and redefinition of distance learning so that students habitually complete programmes of learning. Its well-charted rise was independent of standards that, by design, were on a par with the existing university sector.

It is tempting to think that just getting out of the way of institutions might more generally allow things to happen. But with the unit of resource diminishing annually, we must focus on quality to help keep our standards up. Clarity of purpose would assist us all however unpopular that clarity might initially be.

Mike Thorne is vice-principal, Napier University.

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