Discord clouds the horizon

June 4, 2004

Roger Brown argues that the higher education bill is unlikely to stop the wrangling over quality and standards

There has been much talk of the "light touch" quality regime since its introduction, but celebration of the end of the "quality wars" is perhaps a little premature, especially in view of the implications of the higher education bill. There are three main reasons for this.

First, because the fundamental differences of view between the sector and its funders about the purposes of an external quality regime remain unresolved. This means the regime can always be destabilised.

Despite efforts to reduce regulation, there has been no appreciable change in the overall level of regulation, and it will almost certainly increase under the Office for Fair Access.

Second, there are increasingly strong pressures for regulatory harmonisation. These are domestic (the Lambert review) and international (the Bologna declaration).

At what point will the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Quality Assurance Agency accept that it makes sense to combine financial and academic audit into a proper management audit? When will the advantages of a harmonised European quality regime outweigh a range of increasingly similar national arrangements?

The third and crucial reason is that quality regimes can never be independent of the systems and institutions they regulate. Ultimately, fee levels can be justified only by reference to quality. Yet among all the words written about variable fees, little has been said about the regulatory implications.

Hitherto, we have just about got away with the notion that all UK degrees are more or less of equal value. The QAA still holds to this view. Yet the former Higher Education Quality Council's work on degree standards in the mid-1990s showed conclusively that such a notion is, at best, a myth.

Variable fees will put paid to that. They will also (a) increase further the amount of competition between institutions and (b) increase further the already wide resourcing disparities between institutions.

These developments will excite the regulators. Increased competition always throws up quality issues, recent examples of which relate to overseas collaborative programmes.

The fact that private contributions towards teaching costs will double will not in any way diminish the public interest in what institutions do.

Equally, increased resourcing disparities must eventually and logically lead to quality differences on a scale beyond anything experienced here so far.

But by what criterion - gold standard or fitness of purpose - will such provision be judged, and by whom? On the last point, the HEQC's work on standards showed the limitations of external examining as a means of securing a meaningful degree of comparability between awards. Further intensification of competition - and the tendency for institutions to act in groups (the Coalition of Mainstream Universities, the Russell Group) - will mean the sector is even less able to work this way.

Sometime in 2007, if not sooner, we can expect renewed pressures for external regulation, particularly if the increased information about quality and standards that institutions will have to publish fails to either seriously inform student choice or protect quality.

Anyone who thinks we have heard the last of the quality issue in higher education might want to bear in mind the answer China's long-serving foreign minister, Chou en Lai, gave in the 1970s when asked if he thought the French Revolution had been a success: "It's too soon to say."

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute and author of Quality Assurance in Higher Education: the UK Experience since 1992 , published by RoutledgeFalmer.

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