Beef up QAA to police sector, say MPs

‘Defensive complacency’ over standards requires monitoring by independent agency that can remove degree-awarding powers, says select committee report. Hannah Fearn writes

August 2, 2009

MPs have declared that the system for safeguarding standards in universities is “unfit” and have called for it to be urgently replaced with an Ofsted-style system of inspection.

Following a nine-month inquiry on students and universities, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSS) today issued a critical report, Students and Universities, questioning standards in the sector and accusing vice-chancellors of “defensive complacency” and an unwillingness to answer key questions.

The Quality Assurance Agency must be abolished or transformed into an independent Quality and Standards Agency with responsibility for monitoring and reporting on teaching standards, and backed up with the authority to remove degree-awarding powers, the report says.

Returning to Lord Dearing’s 1997 proposal, the committee calls for a national pool of external examiners with “wide discretion” to amend marks. External examiners’ reports are “insufficiently rigorous” and their recommendations are often not acted on, it claims.

The MPs believe that cultural change is needed at the top of the sector. The committee found it “unacceptable” that vice-chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the question of whether the standard of first-class honours degrees achieved at different universities was comparable.

Committee members also criticise the Government, accusing it of increasing interference in higher education.

Despite the introduction of £3,000 top-up fees, the MPs “detected no evidence” that the extra money had driven up quality.

They found the system of bursaries in universities to be “unsatisfactory and unfair”, and called for a national bursary scheme.

The committee also expresses concern that protection for academic whistleblowers is inadequate. It would like to see better legal safeguards in this area.

On the QAA, the report says that the committee is looking to see “a fundamental change” in the agency directed at enforcing standards. If this is not achieved, it should be “abolished” and replaced with “an entirely new organisation”.

“The public purse supports higher education to the tune of £15 billion…We consider that it is essential that a body concerns itself with assuring the comparability of standards both between institutions and over time,” the report adds.

“We conclude that it is simplistic and unsatisfactory for higher education institutions to be seen to rely on the fact that international students continue to apply as evidence that standards are being maintained. It is absurd and disreputable to justify academic standards with a market mechanism.”

Phil Willis, the committee’s chairman, said: “We do need to recognise that our higher education system is regarded as world class, and we celebrate that. But to remain competitive in the 21st century, the complacency we detected must be addressed.

“We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife, and there is a reluctance to address this issue. The QAA needs radical transformation if we as a country are going to meet the needs of a 21st-century higher education system with 2 million students.”

The IUSS committee has been examining standards and students’ experiences since October 2008, taking evidence from 70 witnesses and 112 written submissions.

An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to the treatment of Walter Cairns, a whistleblower at Manchester Metropolitan University. Mr Cairns, a law lecturer, was removed from the university’s academic board after submitting written evidence to the select committee exposing alleged grade inflation at the institution.

MPs say they “deprecate” the actions of the university’s academic board and John Brooks, its vice-chancellor, and had almost referred the case to the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges.

On whistleblowing, the report says: “It appears to us that the current protections within the sector and the internal arrangements of some higher education institutions may not provide sufficient protection to whistleblowers raising, in good faith, potentially serious concerns about standards.

“The pressures within the system to protect the reputation of the institution are so strong that they risk not only sweeping problems under the mat but isolating and ostracising unjustly those raising legitimate concerns.”

Other key points from the report

• Universities, students and funding bodies should draw up a concordat clarifying the areas over which institutions have autonomy. This should include a definition of academic freedom

• Plagiarism by students is a “serious problem”, and there needs to be further investigation into why UK students appear to spend less time studying than their peers elsewhere in Europe

• The treatment of mature and part-time students constitutes a “form of discrimination”, and the current funding system still favours young full-time students

• All staff who teach should be required to have training and be encouraged to obtain a qualification

• The Higher Education Academy failed to demonstrate what value it added for the public funding it receives

• Universities should be offered financial incentives for outreach, and the use of contextual factors in admissions should be promoted

• The sector should devise a series of national codes of practice, particularly on admissions and feedback, to standardise procedures

• The Government should accelerate the expansion of higher education in further education colleges

• A national system of credit transfer should be established to allow students to move more easily between institutions

• The research excellence framework should do more to recognise pedagogical research, and universities should be required to put in place clear and effective criteria for appointments and promotions based on teaching

The report concludes that the “challenge for the next decade for the higher education sector will be to develop consistency in practice and standards and much greater openness and transparency”.

Universities UK was highly critical of the report.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: “We are disappointed that so much of the work that universities are doing to improve the student experience has been ignored, and that the picture being painted of the sector in many areas is so negative.

“The raft of centralising recommendations appear to us ill thought through, disproportionate to the scale of any problem identified, and made without supporting evidence. They also give no acknowledgement of the costs. This is unhelpful at a time of financial constraints, when our priorities must be frontline teaching and maintaining the quality of the student experience.”

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

To see the report, visit: http://www.parliament.uk/ius

Be sure to get a copy of Thursday’s magazine for a full analysis of the select committee’s report.

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