Complex debate spoiled by hype

May 5, 1995

Michael Harrison defends his university's approach. The headline "Second best degree risk" (THES, April 28) and the Higher Education Quality Council chief executive's "timebomb for the Government" statement concerning the alleged weaknesses of the quality control machinery for so-called collaborative arrangements are typical of the hype now surrounding the issue of quality in higher education. It is unfortunate that a very complex debate is held in a context in which those who benefit from the quality industry are involved in a gladiatorial game of survival.

An entertaining side effect is that the main players struggle to be identified with the latest quality scare in the hope that this will win them celestial Brownie points. This is surely seen as insurance against the day of the great quality Armageddon, a path to salvation when the grim quality controller/auditor reaps a bitter harvest.

The HEQC has chosen to group all arrangements whereby insitutions offer all or part of their provision in another institution as collaborative provision. The method is to treat these separately from mainstream institutional audit. Our experience at the University of Wolverhampton of HEQC is that the deficiencies it perceives in the management of these collaborative arrangements say as much about the methodology of the auditors in evaluating these complex arrangements as they do about the university's internal problems.

One of the, apparently, most damaging critical points made in the HEQC report on the University of Wolverhampton's collaborative provision was that there was an "absence of a formal, updated and actively promulgated academic board policy for the development of collaborative arrangements". The university has policies on access and accessibility and clear frameworks on equal opportunities which include strategies with regard to franchise arrangements with further education. In most, but not all, cases, it is the concern to improve access to higher education which drives these arrangements. In addition, the university has clear, frequently updated, policies on our international activities which include our many overseas partnerships.

The functions and purposes of these activities are varied. Some are to do with commercial interests; some concentrate on developing new markets; others upon encouraging wider participation in under-subscribed disciplines. Some collaborations are concerned to utilise expertise not available in the university. Many concern delivering provision in geographically and socially under-represented areas.

One of the problems of auditing such diverse arrangements as a group is that it is inevitable incoherence will be found. Furthermore, different schools within a financially devolved budget system pursue distinctive strategies which reflect the different market situations in which they find themselves. I would argue that an audit of collaborative arrangements at school or department level would constitute a far superior methodology which would put the collaborations in a strategic context. In our case, if the HEQC had chosen to look at the annually updated school plans they would have found abundant evidence of policies for collaborative arrangements and reviews of success and failure of these enterprises. While I fully accept the HEQC criticism the university has not given sufficient attention at a strategic level to ensuring greater homogeneity of practice in the monitoring of these activities, I totally reject the accusation this stems from a lack of coherent policy on collaborative arrangements.

HEQC audit managed to make many perceptive points with which one could not fail to agree and then on several occasions destroyed the cogency of their argument by faulty analysis of the problem they had discerned. In one case they attributed certain actions to the wrong person and failed to correct this even when the error was pointed out to them in draft. The purpose of audit is to improve institutional performance. It does not help this cause if the audit process itself undermines its own legitimacy and hence the receptiveness of the institution to its findings.

I have stated on record that many of the critical points made by the auditors are valid and have and will be remedied. I am particularly aware that we have perhaps tended to rely too much upon the "fastidiousness with which staff at school level fulfil their responsibilities", to quote the report. This reliance must be supported by more centralised and homogeneous internal monitoring. The report however also quoted praise for the commitment of the staff to service to the customers - students and institutions - and to the rigour with which validation exercises were conducted. However, it must be said also that the draft HEQC report evoked a nine-page rejoinder from the university drawing attention to a wide range of factual errors, misinterpretations and generalisations based upon slender evidence which characterised the whole draft. These were largely ignored and have gone into the public document. An offer was made to enter detailed discussion with HEQC concerning the draft as several of the critical comments were totally misguided yet sufficiently complicated to require dialogue rather than written communication. Again this offer was ignored.

Many collaborative arrangements depend upon the good will of the clients. The same kind of audit behaviour that is permissible within the institution and its own staff and students is often totally inappropriate when used upon an external clientele who, in the last analysis, are the university's customers.

Many of the schemes are devised in order to provide services in a context in which the customer feels secure and not intimidated by the necessity of having to "go to the university". Often the collaborative schemes are designed to encourage people who for social or geographical reasons have missed out on higher education. The conventional audit practice is not geared to eliciting information from such audiences and should be modified accordingly.

Franchises are an innovative aspect of collaborative provision. They encourage people in diverse geographical areas from a wide variety of backgrounds to have access to higher education. These programmes of study enjoy the same scrutiny by internal and external examinations as intra mural provision and hence it is quite misleading to attribute second class status to them. It may well be, as "Learning from Collaborative Audit" suggests, that monitoring of these arrangements lacks the same precision as those within the university. This is possible. The establishing of franchises was charting undiscovered territory. The culture of further education is different from that of higher education. However, FE staff are genuinely committed to the craft of teaching - often more so than is the case in universities. Roger Brown is quite right to argue that we must use this period of consolidation to overcome any deficiencies in the various collaborative arrangements that may exist. However, should another period of expansion be on the horizon it may be franchises, even merger of the HE/FE sectors, which could prove a more cost-effective, accessible solution to the problem of increasing participation than the expansion of the conventional universities, both old and new, or the creation of additional universities.

For this reason it is important Roger Brown's proposal for a meeting of the FE and HE funding councils to discuss the issue of collaborative arrangements should be pursued. Should there be such a meeting, I hope it is the strengths of the collaborative arrangements that will be emphasised rather than shock/horror talk of "Second best degree risk" or "timebomb for government" that constitutes the agenda. Of course deficiencies in the monitoring and quality control machinery for collaborative arrangements must be addressed and remedial action taken. Based upon the Wolverhampton experience of the HEQC audit of collaborative arrangements, I feel much learning and remedial action needs to be undertaken by HEQC itself.

Michael Harrison is vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton.

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