Cut the red tape, report tells QAA

July 19, 2002

A raft of measures designed to cut the burden of accountability faced by academics and university managers is being proposed by a government task force.

The long-awaited report, by the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force, will next week call on the Quality Assurance Agency to "compress" and water down its ten-volume code of practice for academic standards to make it less prescriptive.

This will be one of several recommendations for reform in five key areas including research funding, data collection and quality assurance. The report will accept that higher education faces an unacceptable level of red tape.

The task force has avoided asking fundamental questions about the existence and role of the QAA because the protracted and delicate negotiations over the "light-touch" quality assurance regime, to be introduced next year, have just ended. It does, however, scrutinise its less popular activities.

The QAA's code of practice governs universities' approaches to all aspects of quality assurance including external examiners, student assessment, admissions and even careers guidance. The total number of separate rules, called precepts, has now reached 178.

Under a section on reducing the audit burden, the report will recommend that the QAA "simplify and compress" the code. It wants the code to be made more "user friendly and less prescriptive". It will say the QAA should "make clear that its precepts are pointers to good practice and not standards that higher education institutions have to comply with".

The report is unlikely to remove every burden from academics bogged down by financial audit, quality assurance, research bidding, league tables and performance indicators at a time when the Treasury is demanding "something for something" for more investment in the sector. Ensuring that the sector remains accountable will be key.

But many improvements can be expected as the task force makes sure the sector is regulated under the five principles of good regulation: transparency, accountability, targeting, consistency and proportionality.

Research funding is set for a thorough review. Task force education chair Matti Alderson is known to be concerned that the research assessment exercise has consumed vast amounts of time and effort without necessarily increasing funding. The task force also looked at the time and effort university departments wasted by bidding for different pots of money from the research councils, often with little hope of success, and the burden of ensuring that the money is spent properly.

The government is legally obliged to respond to the report's recommendations within 60 days. A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: "The Department for Education and Skills will coordinate the response. We will expect the DFES to consult with the relevant bodies and use what levers it has to make things happen."

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