Deliver us from quality police

March 27, 1998

The latest wheeze from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is, as the Financial Times reported recently, to create "an elite corps of highly trained and well-paid examinersI as part of a radical shake-up of quality assurance in universitiesI mirroring the rigorous inspection of schools by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog". Under this system, external examiners will report primarily to the QAA, by whom they will be registered and trained. Progress marches on.

Or does it? Elsewhere in the same issue of the FT, an article on "outstanding manufacturing companies" profiles a firm called DEK Printing Machines as an example of best practice in management. Two quotes struck my eye. "There is very little direct supervision of individuals"; and "The US parent gives its subsidiaries complete autonomy to run their own operations the way they see fit". Under this regime, DEK has tripled its workforce and quintupled its turnover since 1990.

Everyone who works in higher education knows that the onward march of surveillance by the self-styled "quality" police has brought nothing but more bureaucracy and misery (while being a nice little earner for some: note the "well paid" bit). But academics are less confident than they should be in pointing out the nakedness of these would-be emperors, who purport to be bringing private-sector efficiency to universities.

The truth is that this neo-Stalinist shift to centralisation and policing flies in the face not only of centuries of history - during which British universities, curiously, contrived to become world-class long before the QAA was ever dreamed up - but of genuinely forward-looking management thinking. We all know that we work better as free men and women than in cages on hamster-wheels (themselves constantly changed, just when we got the hang of the last one: "goalposts on castors" is another apt metaphor). And we are right: we do. Or did.

Twenty years from now, I hope much sooner, historians will look back in bewilderment on the bout of surveillance mania that infected British education (most other countries, significantly, have been wiser) at the end of this century. I confidently predict that all this nonsense will look as silly in retrospect then, as do the opposite excesses of 1968 now. But meanwhile, those who have hijacked the word "quality" are doing real and terrible damage. Is it too late to hope that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others will become a little less invertebrate and respond to this latest assault on our freedom by roundly telling the QAA to take a running jump?

Aidan Foster-Carter. Honorary research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University

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