The next government must resolve several tricky quality and standards issues
IT IS ONE of the safer bets of this general election that higher education quality will not be preoccupying the voters in the Dog and Duck. But political invisibility is not the same as insignificance. The incoming government, whatever its colour, will have to deal with several pressing issues on the quality agenda.
The rise of quality assurance has been one of the most spectacular changes in higher education since the last election. Its comparative novelty is reflected both in continuing flux over mechanisms and institutional arrangements and the absence of anything like the political consensus which is emerging over funding.
The new single Quality Agency, which came into operation this week, is the product of several years of experiment, debate and power struggle. During this time the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals - via its audit-based Higher Education Quality Council - and the three national funding councils, offering a subject-based teaching assessment model, set up their own quality assurance systems as the model for the future.
Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) in particular has proved controversial, with criticisms neatly summarised last December by the contention of the heads of chemical engineering departments that it is "riddled with jargon, takes up too much time and is carried out by assessors who do not know enough about the subject".
Recognition that having two parallel systems made no sense was universal. Resolving the matter was rather more problematic and was finally accomplished through the Joint Planning Group chaired by Sir William Fraser, former vice chancellor of Glasgow University.
But the new agency comes into operation with numerous loose ends to be tied. Not least is that of Scotland, with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council refusing as yet to sign up to the new regime. Wales has joined, but the Welsh council has signalled a desire to hold on to some of the distinctive features of its procedures, notably an emphasis on self-assessment.
One possibility is that self-assessment will become a feature of the new integrated quality process intended to start in October 1998. The agency's chair Christopher Kenyon recently suggested this would mean "to monitor, and if necessary to exhort with a robust but a relatively light touch".
That is only one of a series of balancing acts the agency and its shortly to be appointed chief executive must manage. Among the most significant is that between accountability and academic autonomy. Should the new agency, which will in any case be a pervasive presence, show any signs of developing into a reincarnation of the former polytechnic sector's Council for National Academic Awards, the old universities at least will decry an inroad into their autonomy.
No issue is potentially more contentious than a possible link between quality and funding. With research funding now almost entirely quality-related, it would be surprising if there were no move to introduce at least some element into the teaching formulae. The Higher Education Funding Council for England raised the possibility in its consultation process on a new teaching funding model - postponed until after the Dearing report - and chief executive Brian Fender contemplated telling last year's HEFCE conference that TQA was close to being robust enough to link to funding, before thinking better of it and deleting the passage from his script. A quality element is already incorporated into the funding mechanisms of the Teacher Training Agency, which was duly unimpressed by the Joint Planning Group's gestures towards the issue. Professional bodies will also want a continuing say in quality assurance. Both HEQC and HEFCE are working on a variety of models for co-operating with them, so reducing the pressure on institutions.
And after several years in which higher education had to learn about the differences between quality and standards, the latter - just as difficult to define precisely, but far more amenable to political debate - is back on the agenda.
Christopher Kenyon wrote to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that "the issue of standards is of particular importance. It is certainly my aim that the assurance of standards should be at the heart of the new agency's activities".
Sir Ron Dearing, and an array of leading figures from the quality world, signalled similar priorities at the recent Goldsmiths College quality conference. Sir Ron said standards were as important an issue to his inquiry as funding.
Concern over the issue has two roots - the general belief that the massive, underfunded expansion of the home system must to some extent have hit standards, and a series of scandals over the hard-sell activities of a few British institutions in lucrative overseas markets. Further pressures come from the need for comparability within and between institutions implicit in the rapid growth of modular and credit-transfer degrees.
Debate is likely to draw on the HEQC's Graduate Standards programme and to focus on definitions of "graduateness" - maintaining the quality industry's impressive output of ugly neologisms. Some observers, mostly recently "a late and reluctant convert" in Brighton University director David Watson - a key figure in the development of TQA - have called for the abolition of the traditional British degree classification.
The Confederation of British Industry's evidence to Dearing called for the adoption of clearly defined "threshold standards", clear criteria delineating a pass-fail line across the system.