Don's Diary

November 11, 1994

SUNDAY. I lie awake at night, worrying about the team of specialist assessors I am to meet. I know that one comes from a department that was assessed as "satisfactory" the week before, after claiming excellence. The visit is to a rival institution, and he is likely to be only human. Another sounds irritable on the telephone, and is at pains to tell me that she has been dragooned into the job. A third sounds friendly and helpful, characteristics that will help the visit enormously, provided they are not so strong as to verge on zealousness. The fourth, a very distinguished scholar, is ex-directory.

MONDAY. The team arrives at the dilapidated hotel for the afternoon briefing. The first meeting is always cautious. We know we are likely to be working in close contact for three days, and real or metaphorical halitosis will be bad news. If the team is to gel, it will do so at dinner -- it does. There is a misunderstanding of the expenses budget, and we work on the basis that the allowance is lost if not used. This leaves us with substantial sums to spend on wine.

TUESDAY. The morning starts with a formal meeting with the staff of the department being assessed. I say I come from the country's newest university -- a hackle-raising mistake in an institution that has been a university for a very, very long time. The assessors introduce themselves. This is, of course, unnecessary, for extensive homework will have been done on them already. I give my standard "please don't be concerned" speech, which no one believes. I ask why 20 per cent of staff do not appear to be teaching during the visit. The head of department mutters something about "semesterisation" and sabbaticals. Questions are invited. I wait with bated breath in case someone asks for my definition of "excellent education".

Over a lavish buffet lunch, we meet the students, hand-picked by the department, presumably on the basis of their loyalty and articulacy, although I notice that the balance of sex, ethnicity and age matches the "access" policy much better than the department's cohort as a whole. Articulate they certainly are, and loyal to individual departmental staff, but after a little coaxing, rather more wine, and the mention of the word "modularisation", a floodgate of concerns is unleashed.

WEDNESDAY. The assessors meet in the room set aside for us, delighted by the box of Marks and Spencer's best chocolate biscuits thoughtfully (or cunningly) provided. One assessor tells us that she mistakenly visited the other faculty's class and only discovered after the lecture was well under way. The lecturer seemed unconcerned, the session was excellent, and we are tempted to count it. The other assessors disperse to our classes. Mine turns out to be a videotaped "star turn" by a lecturer who is, indeed, on sabbatical. Is this student-centred learning? After all, you can't replay a real lecture, and, more importantly, as the students tell me, you can't fast-forward it either. They seem to like it.

The dean summons me to his office. He is a man brought in recently from industry. He wears sharp suits and shoes with steel-tipped heels, a portable telephone adorns his belt. He rails at me for asking for changes to our agreed programme. I listen politely, only protesting gently that his head of department accepted my request without concern. This, he argues, is because she is a woman who therefore can't stand up for herself. Further light is shed upon the poor relationships in the faculty. Our tea fails to turn up in the afternoon. I presume he cancelled it.

THURSDAY. Today is decision time. There is little doubt: the teaching is competent, but rarely inspiring; the newly modularised curriculum baffles staff and students; the library is barely adequate; the hastily constructed quality control mechanisms have yet to permeate to departmental level; students' achievement is satisfactory, but not, in the words of some funding council documents "exceptional".

In the "feedback" meeting, despite my genuine thanks and compliments, the mood remains sullen. I launch into the detail, highlighting the many elements of good practice. Seeing his colleagues writing copiously, the vice-chancellor searches his pockets and pulls out an envelope. I stumble in my talk -- is he really going to take notes on its back?

The criticisms follow. "You said in your self-assessment" -- those fatal words. The dean appears to wake up, and scowls, as if to imply that it was nothing to do with him. I near the end, and pause again. At last I have the full attention and eye contact of everyone. "The assessment team concludes that the quality of education is -- another pause -- 'satisfactory'." From the expressions, I might just as well have said "diabolical". A horn blows outside. Right on cue, the taxi has arrived.

I sleep through most of Friday, dreaming of sharks.

Russell Kinman is Head of department of business systems in the faculty of business at the University of Luton. He spent last year seconded to the Higher Education Funding Council for England as a reporting assessor for the council's Quality Assessment Programme. This article is a composite picture of several institutions he visited.

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