Counting the cost of quality out of control

May 29, 1998

What happens when the quality controllers fall down on the job? John O'Dowd reports

REPORTS by the National Audit Office and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council on the running of Glasgow Caledonian University, its senior management and ruling body, provide a unique opportunity to assess the efficacy of quality assurance in universities.

The SHEFC report, which formed the basis of the NAO report to Parliament, criticises former principal Stan Mason and his senior assistant principal for personnel, Brian Fraser (since retired), for abuses of power and financial impropriety. Other senior managers are criticised for taking exotic foreign holidays with their wives at public expense.

Although the inquiry found that the university was in good financial health, the university court is said to have failed to exercise due control over the principal and management of the university, which was formed by the merger of the Queen's College Glasgow and Glasgow Polytechnic in 1993.

SHEFC's report did not deal explicitly with quality assurance. But quality assurance has been regarded by many as a fig leaf for declining standards as the unit of resource has been driven down and student numbers have risen. Much of the push for the Quality Assurance Agency came from sustained lobbying by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others concerned at the "burdens, duplications and intrusiveness" represented by various external quality-assurance processes, including those of the now-defunct Higher Education Quality Council and professional and statutory bodies in a number of areas.

The findings of a HEQC quality audit report for 1995 will now make excruciating reading for its authors in the light of the NAO/SHEFC report and the report of one of the professional bodies. The orthoptics board of the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine described Caledonian as "not a fit place" for the training of its students before the university announced closure of the course.

This came hard on the heels of the announcement of an inquiry into academic malpractice after students on the radiography degree were allowed to proceed to the second year contrary to the regulations, having twice failed the physiology examination and against the decision of the external examiner (part of the external quality control system), who was kept in the dark about the move.

The university says the allegations related to 1994 and had already been investigated internally and externally and maintains that it was vindicated.

Despite spending three days in the institution and interviewing 112 academic and support staff and 57 students, the HEQC audit team appears to have uncovered none of the problems now the subject of other investigations or reported by SHEFC or the CPSM and commended the university for, among other things, the way it had taken the merger as an opportunity to address quality management issues and set in place a total quality management initiative.

Other positive points noted included thorough and robust monitoring, validation and review systems; careful attention to staff selection; and a good working relationship between senior management and the student association.

Even though HEQC and SHEFC were looking at different issues, these commendations contrast starkly with criticisms by SHEFC that the senior assistant principal for personnel, Brian Fraser, was given early retirement rather than disciplined in connection with allegations of nepotism and other staff selection irregularities; that the "university's financial regulations are poorly drafted" and the "roles of court, committees of court and principal and senior officers are confusing and misleading"; that management feedback to the court was such that "the emphasis was on good and positive information with inadequate reporting of information of a negative nature"; the court "failed to oversee and monitor the executive"; there was a "failure to ensure that appropriate structures were in place to ensure systems and procedures operated effectively".

So much for "robust monitoring, validation and review systems" and the "good working relationship between senior management and the students association, and the level of student participation in the consultative processes".

Among the matters the CPSM considered made the university "not a fit place" for the training of its orthoptics professionals were a sustained refusal to discuss staffing levels (with CPSM); refusal to meet agreed staffing commitments; a lack of commitment to employ state-registered orthoptics staff; change in the degree course without notifying the orthoptics board; transferring students from a validated to an unvalidated course without telling them about the implications for state registration and employment; and allowing students who had failed a clinical element of the course to go forward to the final examination and degree Audit arrangements purport to uphold the principle of institutional responsibility for maintaining and improving the quality of learning and teaching through quality control, accountability for public funds, and the generation of meaningful information for consumers, especially students and employers. Ultimately they rely on producer self-assessment and documentation and the self-conscious appraisal of performance by staff who in some cases have little incentive to relate the truth.

While it is relatively simple and straightforward to have formal structures and systems of quality control, the realities of institutional life may render these ineffectual or redundant. There are no effective mechanisms nationally in place to police this. The result of existing arrangements for GCU staff, students and stakeholders clearly does not appear to have been an unalloyed success and should provide a health warning for similar audit reports on other institutions.

John O'Dowd was formerly a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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