Agency of substance

July 21, 1995

At last. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has this week sent to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment its proposals for a single quality assurance agency for higher education.

These outline proposals have the essential characteristics of a system capable of improving quality in higher education: internal subject/programme review, regular institutional audit and an agency which is not owned and controlled by those who distribute the money. They also have the characteristics required for public credibility: the proposed agency will not be the secret enclave of the institutions or the funders but an independent agency with representation from Government, funding councils, professional associations and others. Its reports are to be publicly available. The proposed agency's remit is to run wider than those activities funded by the funding councils. It is expected to grapple with the vexed question of standards. And perhaps most important it is expected to be up and running by the beginning of 1997: a much more business-like timetable than that proposed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

It has taken an unconscionably long time but it seems that the CVCP has now woken up to its responsibility to fight for the universities' freedom from detailed government control. Now that it has taken the initiative there will be much work to be done. There is, for example, nothing in this week's proposals about who should pay for the new agency nor who should appoint its chairman and members and, though there are expressions of hope that the agency may become United Kingdom wide, the planning for such integration has a long way to go.

It will be for the incoming CVCP chairman, Gareth Roberts, to drive forward the planning. The group he is establishing is large and may therefore be unwieldy. It includes, doubtless for diplomatic reasons, those who have had such difficulty in recent months reaching this week's position. He will need to be firm if the work begun this week is to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. At least the initiative is now in the right hands.

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