Collective key to standards

May 12, 1995

As the debate nears its conclusion John Stoddart sets out his framework for quality assurance.

Now that discussions have begun in earnest about future arrangements for quality assurance, we should agree the purpose and scope of the future framework and the principles which should underpin its operation. If we do not define these at the outset we shall have lost the opportunity to create a system which helps higher education to adapt to the considerable challenges ahead while avoiding some of the difficulties that have led to the present debate.

Any framework we devise must have as its main purpose the continuous improvement of the quality and standards of teaching and learning, and as its starting point the recognition that these are the responsibility of all higher education institutions, individually and collectively.

An essential requirement of the chosen framework is that it preserves and fosters the self-critical, cohesive academic communities on which British higher education is founded. There must be a proven and demonstrable commitment to quality assurance which embraces both accountability and improvement and which looks forward to ways in which quality can be enhanced rather than essentially focussing on the status quo.

Accountability to students, to employers and to the taxpayer has been strongly emphasised in the debate so far. We have to be able to justify the enormous public investment which is now made in higher education and its value for money.

The new quality assurance framework has to incorporate the essential elements of that ac-countability: information and consequent judgements and, in exceptional cases, sanctions. Information and judgement is needed both at institutional level and at that of academic units: courses, programmes or departments.

Institutions already provide much of this latter information for their own management purposes and as part of their accountability to their governing bodies or councils, their students, employers, and local communities.

However, alongside accountability to external stakeholders, institutions also have an accountability to their academic community, an academic community with shared values and assumptions, including assumptions about threshold standards of programmes and awards which are currently addressed mainly through the external examiner system.

The Government's invitation to us to address comparability of standards is a considerable challenge to this community, which cannot sensibly be separated from the parallel challenge to demonstrate quality. Both standards and quality must be properly ad-dressed by the new framework.

Striking the balance between the two kinds of accountability will be important. But it will also be vital to accommodate a third need, that of institutions to develop by learning from one another through sharing information and best practice. Universities and colleges face enormous challenges over the next few years.

We shall only be able to meet them through continuous innovation and development. Responsiveness to new emerging occupational needs, new student groups, new subject areas will require wide peer group support for legitimisation. Once again, this can only be achieved through a strong, self confident, and mutually supportive, academic community.

Finally, the new framework has to address the full range of external claims which increasingly impinge on higher education, and sometimes detract from it. These include not only the demands of the funding councils but also the accreditation activities of the professional bodies and others. It is the combined weight of these claims, as much as the relationship between audit and assessment, that is the real cause of the present difficulties. Once again, collegiality and peer support can and should provide the necessary platform for an institutionally-led response.

In summary, the key principles underpinning any framework must include: * respect for academic autonomy and diversity * trust in the academic community and a recognition that quality rests ultimately on high professional standards * transparency in the way in which these responsibilities are exercised Any single agency must balance the requirements of accountability to external stakeholders with respect for institutional autonomy and an acknowledgement of the critical role of the wider academic community. It is collective responsibility for quality and for standards that is the key to the present debate and which must underpin any new arrangements.

John Stoddart is chairman of the Higher Education Quality Council.

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