Define 'quality', then we'll talk 'assurance'

January 11, 2002

We can't have quality assurance unless we establish the proper role of higher education in our society, argues Peter Williams.

"Never complain, never explain." It's a useful maxim because it justifies masterly inactivity. But it will not do any longer. At least, not for the Quality Assurance Agency. There is rather a lot of explaining to do.

What has the QAA to explain? Itself, perhaps? Certainly, but not just itself. Perhaps something more fundamental. There needs to be argument - serious argument - among academics, students, institutions, funders, employers, governments and quality assurers. There needs to be open public discussion about what universities are for, the proper relationship between higher education and society, what kind of accountability is needed, whether academic freedom and autonomy matter and how far the paymaster can, or should, call the piper's tune.

Dearing did not begin to tackle these questions. At present, the arguments surrounding quality assurance consist too often of superficial soundbites, mediocre cliches and low-quality, ill-tempered non-thought that is usually more about personalities than about the life of the mind.

"The life of the mind." Oh dear! That is not going to go down well with the Benthamite devotees of Hard Times . It sounds a bit precious. Not very modern. Elitist perhaps? Not very consumer-oriented. Anyway, what has the life of the mind got to do with quality assurance?

Everything. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Higher education institutions exist to do the bidding of the funder. They are service organisations providing a "credentialling" service for a mass audience hungry for qualifications. So runs one current orthodoxy.

Maybe. But think about it. If I pay to go to a concert, I expect that the members of the orchestra will play the pieces they say they are going to play; I also expect that they will play the right notes in the right order. I do not expect to dictate the programme. I take what is offered, I do not try to call the tune. Of course, the programme planners have to take account of what the public wants, but they are not required to follow it slavishly. They try to inform, to expand, the public's taste. Simon Rattle frequently - and successfully - flies in the face of popular taste. Should he be stopped?

What has this got to do with quality assurance in higher education? If universities are the concert halls of the intellect, what are the reasonable expectations that their concert-goers should have of them? First, that the performers should say what their programmes are going to be. Is it to be Schutz, Schubert, Shostakovitch or The Shadows (or combined studies), and which pieces? Second, we should have some confidence that they are actually going to turn up and play what they say they will. And that the right notes will be played in the right order. And that the performers will be professionals. The audience is paying, after all. How are musical reputations created and revised? Through the reporting of critics.

Incidentally, in those concert halls of the intellect, how do the players learn to be professional? "You whistle the tune and I'll pick it up"?

OK, so the analogy eventually breaks down. Students are not just an audience. But it takes us quite a long way. And it continues to come as something of a shock after a long time working in the quality-assurance world that I still have to explain to academics what quality is in higher education. Why are they not explaining it to me? Worse, I have to continue to explain that quality assurance is not (necessarily) something that has to be done to them by malignant sadists or a self-reverential priesthood, that it is not the opposite of "enhancement" - whatever that word means - and that it is not the enemy of academic freedom or integrity. Quality assurance is as much a route to self-assurance as it is to public reassurance.

Many letters critical of the QAA begin: "We have no argument with the principle of accountability", and then go on to imply that no practicable way of demonstrating accountability will ever be acceptable to their authors. I am reminded of an Australian vice-chancellor who said to me:

"Y'know, Peter, the trouble with academics is that they want the benefits of self-employment and a regular salary as well."

We cannot have a sensible discussion about what kind of accountability is appropriate if there is a reluctance to accept that the word has a place within the normal lexicon of higher education and a willingness to have a proper discussion about what it might usefully mean.

Institutional autonomy, academic freedom, accountability, intellectual development, the life of the mind. These are, or should be, the stuff of the dialogue between our society and our academy, as important as widening participation, employability and retention rates. And perhaps that is the really interesting job for quality assurance - to help create and maintain a lively equilibrium between the participants in that dialogue and explain the interests of the one to the other.

And now that I have done some explaining, there is no space left to complain!

Peter Williams is acting chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency and is writing in a personal capacity.

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