THE LATEST crop of academic audit reports does not make for cheerful reading. The basic message of the original audits of the "old" universities was that they had precious few corporate quality assurance mechanisms. Audit forced them to think about institutional quality management in a much more focused way. Self-regulating professionalism was to be contained within committee structures designed to reinforce institutional oversight and assure transparency and accountability.
When the cycle of audits was nearing completion, the Higher Education Quality Council decided to shift the goalposts. Unduly influenced by political pressure over academic standards, "continuation audit" was to home in on "institutional reflection on the management of quality and standards". Its principal purpose was "to offer an opinion on the extent to which individual institutions are discharging effectively their corporate responsibilities for the academic standards and quality of their awards".
The HEQC hoped that under the twin pressures of audit and quality assessment institutions would have taken steps to rein in the autonomy of university teachers. This has not happened. Instead, as the recent audit reports on Exeter and Sheffield universities have revealed, there appears to have been more devolution, not less.
Exeter is criticised, in typically coded language, for daring to ponder the real value of its teaching committee, described by the auditors as "a strategic instrument which I could conceive and direct policies for the quality assurance of its academic provision".
Sheffield is taken to task for an alleged absence of institutional oversight of quality and standards above the level of the faculty: "Few of the staff who met the team could clearly identify where responsibility lay for quality assurance in teaching and learning at institutional level".
Sheffield pointed to the swiftness with which it was able to respond "to changes in key quality indicators". But far from pleasing the auditors, this explanation served merely to intensify their irritation. What they wanted to see was quality enhancement brought about not "expediently", but "as a result of the operation of the formal process of quality assurance".
The University of Wolverhampton has no shortage of such formal processes. It is one of the very few British universities accredited to the ISO 9001 quality management standard. So I turned eagerly to the audits of two of its international programmes, run in collaboration with partner institutions in Germany and the Netherlands.
Wolverhampton has what Exeter and Sheffield lack: "A large number of generic procedures I covering a range of institutional activities", committing the institution "to the application of common requirements for all programmes, irrespective of the site of delivery". In particular, the equivalence of academic standards in franchised institutions was alleged to have been more or less guaranteed through the ISO 9001 "operational framework", dating from 1994.
But this was not what the auditors found. Indeed, one paragraph of their report amounts to the most comprehensive indictment I have ever read of the notion that ISO 9001 has any relevance to quality assurance in a higher education environment: "The university will wish to consider whether it wishes either to enforce its procedural requirements more systematically, or, alternatively, to permit within an agreed general framework, a more permissive application of its ISO 9001 procedures, negotiated as appropriate according to the context and needs of the particular collaborative partnership."
At Exeter and Sheffield the HEQC seems to want a much less permissive regime. Yet at Wolverhampton it is actually encouraging less rigidity in quality assurance terms. But behind these confused signals lies a much deeper confusion, which the Quality Assurance Agency should address before any more continuation audits are carried out.
Academic standards can never be guaranteed primarily through written procedures. Such procedures can help, but are ancillary to the scholastic professionalism of teachers and students. The key to the maintenance of academic standards is staff development. Academic audit had many strengths, but two of its major weaknesses were its inability to appreciate the pivotal importance of non-documented scholarly dialogue and its obsession with formal paperwork. This was why Oxford and Cambridge received such negative audit reports.
The recent report presented by the History at the Universities Defence Group to the QAA reaches the same broad conclusions. "Only the professional historian is equipped to determine what constitutes mastery of the subject of history", with the inevitable consequence that only professional historians can legitimately judge the assurance of standards of history courses. Continuation audit appears unequal to the task of addressing these issues, preferring to concentrate on the much easier target of "corporate responsibility" for standards, as evidenced in formal procedures. Such an approach would be laughable were it not so irresponsible and potentially so damaging.
Geoffrey Alderman is pro vice chancellor of Middlesex University.