Disharmony over music assessment

February 16, 1996

Higher education quality chiefs have come under fire over their handling of complaints about the allegedly "unprofessional" and "confrontational" style of funding council assessors.

Royal Holloway College staff say calls for a quick follow-up inspection of their music department have not been taken up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, despite claims from staff that assessors had not followed proper procedures on their first visit.

Lecturers say that during their inspection some assessors failed to follow funding council guidelines by concentrating on their own experience and the practices of their own institutions, rather than the mission of Royal Holloway's music department. They did not allow adequate time for proper scrutiny and in some cases adopted a "confrontational" style of questioning.

These accusations led Norman Gowar, college principal, to complain in a letter to the funding council that the conduct of the visit was "clearly unprofessional" and "did not follow the guidelines laid down by HEFCE".

The funding council's response to the complaints was to review its assessors' evidence rather than consider information gathered by the college, Professor Gowar says. This was "a rather strange approach to a complaint" and "quite unsatisfactory" he added.

But the funding council said this week that all points made by the college had been considered carefully, and that it was still considering the case. A spokesman said: "It is certainly untrue to say that we have ruled out the possibility of a follow-up visit."

However, Professor Gowar says that after a year of waiting, the value of a second visit may have been lost.

In a letter to Paul Clark, the funding council's quality director, last July, Professor Gowar emphasised that the college was not protesting against the "satisfactory" grading given to the department, but over the conduct of the visit. He warned: "I am concerned about this matter not just because of this particular visit but because unless reasonable complaints are seen to be dealt with thoroughly and fairly there is a real danger of a loss of confidence in the system. I begin to think that we have taken the wrong approach to the process."

The funding council has not responded to Professor Gowar's plea for prompt action, even though Dr Clark admitted in a letter to him that the assessor's style of questioning "was not portrayed in a way that we would ideally wish".

A HEFCE spokesman commented: "In a case where complaints are made we do examine them carefully and take action where we consider it appropriate."

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