The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's determination to be the main quality watchdog for universities north of the border seems to have derailed plans for a UK-wide single quality agency, at least temporarily.
Last Friday the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals received a letter from the Department for Education and Employment which outlined plans for the new agency. The letter is believed to have been largely in line with CVCP proposals presented to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education earlier this summer.
This would have ended a fierce debate between the English funding council, which has argued that only its own system of assessment would really guarantee accountability, and vice chancellors who sought to preserve their autonomy by favouring an audit-based system. But a hasty telephone call from the DFEE demanded the letter be disregarded, apparently as a result of intervention from SHEFC.
However, it does not appear that Scottish principals share their funders' reservations about a national quality system. At a meeting of SHEFC on September 8, the council agreed that its present arrangements for quality assessment might be developed "with little additional effort" to encompass audit, and added: "There were already significant benefits to Scottish institutions in being part of a process directed and managed in Scotland in that it reflected the distinctive characteristics of undergraduate education in the country." Scottish prinicpals do not apprently appreciate these benefits.
Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said that Scottish heads had made it quite clear to the Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, that they wanted a UK body.
Dr Crawford said that he understood that COSHEP would receive a letter from Mr Forsyth, after the CVCP had received a letter from Mrs Shephard, outlining the Scottish Office's response. He said that SHEFC's resolve to incorporate audit came as a "revelation to many of us".
HEFCE issued a statement this week stating that the council was awaiting guidance from the secretary of state. Dr Gareth Roberts, chairman of the CVCP, said he expects a revised letter in time for next week's meeting.