Diversity and quality will thrive under light touch

January 29, 1999

Anything more than minimal external reviews will harm the quality they are meant to ensure, Alec Broers argues

The first students to pay tuition fees have completed their first term. These fees will increasingly and inevitably shift the spotlight to teaching quality in universities.

With or without this spotlight, it is in the national interest to monitor and ensure a high standard of teaching, and we must accept the fact that quality assurance is a fixture in university life. However, the processes of quality assurance have become so burdensome that they threaten to damage teaching quality. In large part this is because we are all subjected to the same procedures, and the same layers of bureaucracy, despite the diversity of courses and institutions across the country.

Diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Without it, we would never have seen the rapid expansion of student numbers over the past decade. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all university in the UK.

Instead, there is an enormous range of choices for any prospective student. Obviously, students benefit from this range of choice. But the nation also benefits, because a larger percentage of the population is attracted to higher education. Perhaps even more important, the nation benefits from graduates with a broad range of knowledge and skills.

Throughout the sector, we are being asked to do more with less funding. Teaching staff are stretched to the limit. While they once struggled to balance teaching and research, they now struggle to balance teaching a larger number of students, researching under the increased pressure of the research assessment exercise and preparing reams of paperwork for external scrutineers. It is impossible to estimate the number of staff hours that go into preparing for visiting panels, but it is clear, at Cambridge at least, that these hours do cut into time that would normally be spent preparing for lectures, leading supervisions and marking exams.

These pressures, combined with shrinking salaries in real terms, mean that the UK may be faced with the very serious threat that high-calibre people will be turned away from the higher education profession.

We need an assessment system that is selective. To ensure minimum standards, only a very minimal external review process is needed. There are plenty of existing indicators, many reported annually by law, that give a clear picture of an institution's teaching standards without the need for invasive national procedures. The vast majority of courses would easily "pass" this assessment, freeing the limited higher education spending power to focus on areas of doubt or concern. This would ensure a minimum standard of teaching, protecting the UK's excellent reputation while reducing the burden on those departments and institutions whose standards are not in question.

When, in a less frequent and less burdensome way, all institutions are assessed, it must be done with the basic understanding that not all universities and courses are alike. A broad range of course structures and intended outcomes is healthy and should be respected and supported, not forced into a national curriculum for higher education.

It must be recognised that, especially for those universities with a strong record of research achievement, it is entirely artificial to separate teaching and research. When a subject is taught by someone at the cutting edge of research, students are enthused and challenged, and the rewards are noticeable.

Dearing recognised the diversity of the sector and its commitment to ensuring standards. The committee's report recommended a model for assuring quality and standards, but I am convinced that Dearing did not have in mind the vast bureaucratic superstructure suggested last March by the Quality Assessment Agency. Some encouragement may be taken from the QAA's latest proposals, which, while still giving grounds for considerable concern about the system that is emerging, show signs of a more realistic appreciation of the value of institutions' quality mechanisms and of the frequently cited need for a "lighter touch", including real cooperation with professional and statutory bodies.

However, the acid test will be in how the proposals are developed. Institutions must remain vigilant and not hesitate to make known their views; I will lobby hard to try to ensure that the sector is not smothered in a burden of unprofitable labour and costly bureaucratic procedures.

The government has acknowledged that the sector is stretched to its limit. It is imperative that we waste no resources on unnecessary or duplicative assessments. While universities must be accountable, we should not allow the process of accountability to damage the very service it seeks to assure.

Sir Alec Broers is vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

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