Claire Sanders reports on some blunt advice from Europe, particularly the Netherlands. As the assessors from the funding council and the auditors from the quality council poke and probe their way through your department this summer, just console yourself with the thought that the "quality" they seek is like love - indefinable.
"Everybody knows and feels when there is love. Everybody recognises it. But when we try to give a definition of it, we are left standing with empty hands."
Thus wrote Ton Vroeijenstijn, senior policy advisor at the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, in his book on quality and love, Improvement and Accountability: Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
For vice chancellors and members of the Higher Education Funding Council for England who are struggling to give birth to a single quality agency this summer it may provide some starting points. It draws on the experiences of a number of European countries, principally the Netherlands, and gives some blunt advice.
"Do not try to discover a definition of quality. It is a waste of time," writes Dr Vroeijenstijn. Instead he argues that every party concerned - students, staff, government and employers - should make clear what their requirements are.
On performance indicators he is dismissive: "Avoid a discussion about performance indicators. That is also a waste of time." Indicators should not be used as an end in themselves to draw definitive conclusions, but to trigger areas of concern and provide a catalyst for further investigation.
He accepts external quality assessment but is categorical that it should be based on self-assessment, peer review and site visits. Furthermore: "A good agreement between the higher education institutions and the government about responsibilities should be made."
Surveys of external quality assessment systems throughout Europe in the past few years have persistently thrown up a picture of common elements. They are Dr Vroeijenstijn's self-assessment and peer review.
Last November the European Union gave the go-ahead to a project to test and compare pre-designed quality assessment procedures in engineering sciences, communications studies, art and design and music. Forty six universities and higher education institutions in 17 EU and European Free Trade Association countries are taking part. While each country and each institution will vary the basic model, the essential features are once again self assessment and peer review. From these reviews, 17 national reports will be presented to the European Union and a European overview will be produced.
Where European countries differ is over who "owns" the external quality assessment procedures. In the UK the Scottish, English and Welsh funding councils are government-based, as is the Centre for Evaluation in Denmark. In France the Comite National d'Evaluation is independent, but reports directly to the president. In Sweden, the Office of the University Chancellors is a government-based organisation that does not carry out external assessments. Instead the responsibility lies with the institutions themselves. In the Netherlands the agencies for the universities and for higher vocational education are set up by the institutions themselves - there is no government interference.
What makes the UK unique is its twin-track arrangements, with universities setting up the Higher Education Quality Council essentially to see off attempts by the government-owned funding councils to control quality assurance. The English funding council argues that its assessment arrangements are based on self assessment and peer review, and in this sense are owned by the institutions themselves. But the fact that the exercise is run by a Government quango, and that the Government has stipulated a link with funding, means that it does not feel like ownership to the universities.
Dr Vroeijrnstijn is adamant that any external quality assessment arrangement that steers too far towards accountability will not work. This is where Scylla and Charybdis - the twin dangers - come in. "Aiming only at improvement, the system will be shipwrecked by the Scylla because the outside stakeholders will ask for accountability and design their own external quality assurance system. Overemphasising accountability, the system will drown in the Charybdis, because improvement will be hindered or even made impossible."
Debates on the establishment of a single agency in the UK have veered between a discussion of ownership and a discussion of processes. Dr Vroeijenstijn draws on the experiences of the Dutch, where universities essentially own the system. The Dutch have already carried out their own evaluation to see whether all this focus on quality has actually led to improvements. In 1993 the researchers charged with the investigation concluded: "We cannot say that the large amount of resources invested immediately leads to an equally large improvement of the quality of education."
We are back to love again. What Dr Vroeijenstijn forgot to mention is that putting a lot into a relationship does not always mean you will get a lot out.