Be bold, face the fray fully armed

April 4, 1997

This week the new higher education single quality agency finally staggered formally into operation, though it still has no chief executive or full complement of board members. The THES has long campaigned for a quality assurance agency owned by higher education, rather than an agency which is the creature of government - either directly in that it is government-appointed, or indirectly in that ministries or fundings councils foot the the bill and appoint "observers".

A government-appointed agency answerable to Parliament, as favoured by the Labour party, may have been avoided. Doubts about Parliament's ability to enforce probity, together with the existence of an independent agency, should deter a new administration from picking a fight with universities early on.

But more subtle control remains a real possibility. The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, recently had another go at getting "communications mechanisms" set up between the new agency and her department and Labour is likely to be equally determined. The interventionist ways of the Teacher Training Agency apparently have the approval of both parties and the Department for Education and Employment, which has long sought more control over higher education, could find just the opportunity it needs for the necessary control clauses in Labour's promised early Education Bill. The close attention the English higher education funding council is paying to reviewing its assessment methodology (front page) suggests that it expects to continue to be intimately involved in how the new agency operates.

Much then will depend on the steps taken by the new chairman of the agency, Christopher Kenyon, between now and the autumn, and on the recommendations of the Dearing committee.

Mr Kenyon needs to appoint a chief executive and independent board members who pack sufficient punch to protect the agency, both from government interference and from university special pleading. The team will need to be brave, bold and imaginative if justified demand for explicit standards is to be reconciled with university autonomy.

Encouraging the agency to develop quickly such a powerful, independent position will test one of its parents, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. The CVCP will be tempted to seek to control the agency by preventing it developing the independence and strength it will need.

The CVCP has long been ambivalent about setting up an agency which could genuinely call its members to order. The temptation will be there. now to make sure it is not too threatening. Ceding even partial control of quality and standards to a genuinely independent agency goes to the heart of university business. A strong agency will be liable to have an impact on universities' market position, status and survival. Furthermore, the agency will be the gatekeeper for newcomers wanting to set up as higher education providers in competition with its existing clients.

The signs so far suggest too great a nervousness about the agency's development, with the chief executive's job advertised at a salary too low to attract a powerful and experienced figure and the independent board appointments left hanging fire. There is an air of wait-and-see which is unwise. The Dearing committee cannot be relied on to come down on the side of university autonomy any more than an incoming Labour government can. While it will, of course, be important for the universities and the agency to be on good terms with a new administration, it will also be important for the agency to be strong enough to defend universities' independence.

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