Baroness bemoans ‘poorly focused’ efforts to measure quality

A former president of the British Academy has argued that universities are subject to “elaborate forms of accountability that reveal little about how effectively students are taught or how much they learn on different courses”.

October 19, 2011

Philosopher Onora O’Neill was speaking on “University and Diversity” at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities earlier this week, as part of a 10th-anniversary lecture series on “The Idea of the University”.

Today’s “standard systems for assessing what is described as the quality of universities”, argued Baroness O’Neill, tended to rely on “rather abstract features of universities”.

These included the proportion of their activity that is laboratory-based, the proportion of students who are “residential” and the proportion who are mature, she said.

Largely ignored, however, were “many matters of substantive educational and cultural significance”.

By way of example, Baroness O’Neill noted out that “although we learn how many overseas students each university recruits - supposedly a great indicator of academic success and reputation, and hitherto a genuine indicator of financial success – [standard measures] say nothing about the proportion of their entering or exiting students who are competent users of any second language…It is striking that something that so evidently bears on the work they can do at university and beyond should not be recorded or reported, but passed over in silence when university quality is publicly judged.”

Similarly, she continued, “there is no attempt to judge or record how well the students on any given course can interpret or criticise demanding texts, or how fluently they can write in varied and demanding registers, or how far they have developed their understanding of ethical, social or religious issues”.

She concluded the lecture by calling for “more specific and substantive forms of accountability, that would actually aim to judge the quality of education provided and achieved”.

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