Stringent fiscal retrenchment allied with expanded numbers of students have directed unprecedented attention to quality issues in higher education.
Without doubt the single most important determinant of quality is the level and distribution of resources and the decline in the unit of resource over recent years has clearly begun to threaten the quality of provision.
Yet for any given level of investment the most effective means of assuring and assessing quality must be found. Under conditions of mass access to higher education, mechanisms to maintain and enhance the quality of educational provision must be secured which can command the confidence of institutions, students, teachers, employers and the wider community.
The development of franchising arrangements, the spread of modularisation and credit-based courses, the accreditation of learning undertaken "off campus", and the growth of overseas programmes, have led to concern that quality could be sacrificed on the altar of diversity and expansion.
The Labour Party does not believe there ought to be a trade-off between quality and access. Where there is evidence of a decline in the quality of provision, this evidence must be investigated and acted on swiftly and thoroughly.
Widened access implies diversity. The structural transformation of higher education from a restricted and relatively homogeneous system into one capable of providing opportunities for a larger and increasingly diverse student body requires flexibility, innovation and change. Institutions should formulate genuinely different mission statements and respond to the needs and choices of a much wider range of people. Unfortunately, the new quality assessment framework appears to frustrate these ends. If institutional diversity is to define post-binary higher education, a new set of arrangements is required for the assessment and enhancement of quality.
For while the present framework represents an institutional advance on the plethora of agencies responsible for quality in the old binary system, it has been repeatedly criticised as costly, bureaucratic and strategically flawed. A large proportion of the costs of quality audit and assessment has been transferred from the Government and its agencies to the institutions themselves.
Academic staff have argued that the time and effort involved in meeting the new requirements have detracted considerably from time available for teaching students. There has been confusion over the criteria employed by the funding councils in forming judgements on the quality of provision; concern that judgements can be made in the absence of visits to institutions; concern that quality assessors are not adequately trained; and disquiet from the postgraduate community that support for research students is not assessed. Of even greater significance is the real danger that institutions are being coerced by the funding environment and the pressure of uniform formulae to sacrifice their diversity in the relentless pursuit of limited resources. This process is intensified, as the Barnett report illustrated, by the present categories of assessment, which appear to favour the "old" universities, which have received the majority of the "excellent" ratings awarded so far, while simultaneously reinforcing a "culture of compliance" on the part of institutions.
These are some of the problems. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has shown a willingness to address certain concerns. In the search for long-term solutions, however, the following principles should guide policy in this area: that a proper balance be maintained between public accountability and institutional self-regulation; that the purpose of quality assessment must be continually to uphold and improve standards; that the criteria and procedures for assuring and reporting quality be transparent and that information be freely available to all students, staff and other interested bodies; and that the full range of student concerns -- effective access, flexibility and choice, teaching performance, learning achievements, and wider support systems -- are recognised.
The Labour Party has argued that a new Higher Education Standards Council -- independent and answerable to Parliament -- would be the most effective means of assessing quality across the whole higher education sector. We have suggested that it would monitor, review and advise on the following: institutions' quality assurance mechanisms; the external examiner system; the development of credit accumulation and transfer schemes; student evaluation of courses, spreading the best practice already operating in a number of institutions; and staff appraisal and career development, including practical help with teaching techniques. The membership of the ruling council would be drawn from institutions collectively, from the academic professions and trade unions, from student representatives and from professional bodies and employers. It would publicly advise funding bodies for the purpose of informing funding decisions.
Sensitivity and caution need to be exercised in the design of the methodology and categories of quality assessment insofar as information relevant to funding decisions is concerned.
There is clearly widespread support for rationalising the existing framework. There have been numerous calls for the quality audit and assessment operations of the Higher Education Quality Council and the funding councils to be unified under a single agency or arrangement. This would remove unnecessary duplication of effort and the inefficient waste of resources.
The Confederation of British Industry has proposed that the board of such an agency would be composed of representatives from the plurality of interested parties while remaining within the institutional ownership of the higher education sector. This is a central point. Our belief is that the agency should be independent both of the university community and of the funding bodies. It is also important that quality assessors enjoy the confidence of institutions. The recommendations of the Barnett report on the selection and professional development of assessors are a welcome stimulus to the debate in this area. A national quality agency needs to put in place mechanisms for ensuring that assessment staff work successfully in partnership with institutions' departmental staff.
In Scotland and Wales visits to institutions undergoing assessment are mandatory and this practice will now be extended to England. There may be merit in the creation of a regional framework for such assessment. In addition, institutions should probably have a mandatory responsibility to conduct quality audits.
Unlike the Conservatives, the Labour Party has always cherished the principle of academic freedom. We believe it can be nurtured within a reformed quality framework, promoting a higher education sector in which diversity flourishes and accountability to students, staff and the community is upheld.
Access, equity and diversity are our key watchwords for the future, together with quality, for a decline in standards will short-change our students, demoralise staff and institutions, and devalue the reputation which British higher education holds both at home and abroad.
Bryan Davies is Member of Parliament for Oldham Central and Royton, and Labour spokesman on higher education.