Bring those accountable to book

May 5, 1995

Alfred Morris proposes a new model for quality in higher education. Tim Boswell's weary suggestion that in the absence of agreement between the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals we might soldier on with separate arrangements for assessment and academic audit is understandable but constitutionally it is quite unacceptable.

The CVCP represents the accounting officers through whom universities are ultimately accountable to Parliament, and they have expressed the view that present arrangements are too "heavy-handed" to represent best value for money. Moreover, both assessment and audit in their present form are diverting scarce resources and distracting vice chancellors and their colleagues from the pro-active promotion of quality.

These things make it imperative that the parties to this debate reach a mutually acceptable accommodation which reconciles the statutory obligations of HEFCE with the parallel obligations of universities themselves. This might best be done by elaborating an approach identified some time ago by Coopers Lybrand in a report to the Higher Education Quality Council. The result might go like this:

* The senate should be required to present an annual academic report to the university council;

* That report should be subject to both internal audit, with an external dimension (for example, an expanded role for external examiners) and independent audit, consisting largely of systems review and sampling, as does external financial audit;

* The extent and nature of external academic audit should be determined by the independent auditors' opinion of an institution's own quality controls, as is the case with external financial audit;

* The classic dictum of Lord Justice Lopes, familiar to every accountant, is that the external auditor " . . . is a watchdog, but not a bloodhound . . ." What universities need are quality bloodhounds. To be effective they must be internally accountable, though they will need a degree of internal independence. Like the internal financial auditor, the quality bloodhound should be set on the scent by an organisation's own processes;

* HEQC should promulgate academic accounting standards and approve statements of recommended practice proposed by CVCP, in a manner analogous to that of the accounting standards board in relation to financial SORPs. The HEQC should also have a role in disseminating good practice and in training and continuing professional development of internal academic auditors;

* HEFCE should be responsible for the registration and regulation of external academic auditors, with a role analagous to that of the Department of Trade and Industry in terms of Companies Acts provisions. The external academic auditors should be required to satisfy themselves that universities have adequate systems of direct observation and assessment of teaching and learning, conducted in accordance with the agreed SORP and standards, which should require an external dimension and extend the role of external examiners;

* The external academic auditors should be chosen by the university itself, just as schools choose their inspectors, and they should report on whether: the annual academic report meets HEFCE requirements; if the report has been prepared in accordance with HEQC's Academic SORP and Standards; and; the report presents a true and fair view of the academic state of affairs of the institution.

Each university should be required to file its audited annual academic report with HEFCE for public record, as though Northavon House were Companies House. The model described respects the autonomy and emphasises the responsibilities of the universities. As former senior partner at Coopers Lybrand the HEFCE's distinguished accountant chairman must surely respect its rigour.

The only HEFCE requirement the Coopers model might appear to fail is that of consistency for all institutions. But consistency does not necessarily require HEFCE itself to undertake assessment. If that were so, then by analogy HEFCE should also be engaged in uniform and detailed financial assessment, and could not rely on external financial auditors because they are chosen by universities themselves.

Because the Coopers model so effectively respects the position of the universities it deserves their reciprocal acknowledgement that the Secretary of State for Education has a right, indeed a duty, to call upon HEFCE to override the audit system and "put the inspectors in" if ever she/he believes exceptional circumstances excite legitimate public concern. The university precedent is Cardiff, while the Companies Act analogy might be the DTI role in relation to Guinness.

The way forward is to emphasise that universities are as responsible and accountable for academic standards and for the quality of teaching and learning as they are for their financial stewardship of public funds. The best way to do this is to be uncompromising in asserting that the line of accountability to governors, Parliament and public is through the vice chancellors, and that they are the accounting officers for quality as well as solvency.

A serious weakness of present arrangements is that they encourage a dangerously seductive notion of subsidiarity in which universities might be seen as wholly owned subsidiaries of HEFCE. That exaggerates the possibilities of the role of HEFCE chief executive and ironically would let vice chancellors too easily off the quality and standards hook.

The determination of policies for the promotion and assurance of the quality of teaching and learning and the protection of standards are corporate responsibilities, but the responsibility for translation of those policies into practice is always an executive one.

Both Gillian Shephard and Tim Boswell are said to be in listening mood and they surely cannot find a centralised assessment model ideologically attractive. In Wales, John Redwood would surely be ill at ease with an approach which is consistent with nationalisation but not with privatisation or the simulation of market disciplines.

Ministers are justifiably suspicious that CVCP, which has a poor track record in this matter, will attempt to sell them an institutionally soft compromise. As a founder member of the Managerial Tendency, a soft option is certainly not what the author of this article has in mind and it might reassure the Department for Education that he has not found his way to a CVCP meeting since the initial disappointment of discovering that it is not true that vice chancellors sit in stalls beneath their banners in the manner of Knights of the Garter.

Alfred Morris is vice chancellor of the University of the West of England, a member of the HEFC for Wales and its audit committee, recently chairman of its quality assessment committee, a former member of CNAA and HEQC, and qualified to act as an auditor for Companies Acts purposes.

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