Dons get tough on standards

June 11, 1999

Academics would support plans to revoke universities' degree-awarding powers, a THES survey has revealed.

Three-quarters of respondents think it should be possible to withdraw powers from universities and colleges that fail quality assessments. This is despite growing confidence in standards.

Some 47 per cent of higher and further education staff surveyed said they believe that academic standards have fallen since 1990, compared with 57 per cent in a similar 1997 THES survey.

Vice-chancellors and principals have criticised Quality Assurance Agency plans to stop poor performers awarding degrees.

But the THES survey of 400 academics in universities and colleges countrywide reveals only 9 per cent disagree strongly with the ability to remove degree-awarding powers. This compares with 38 per cent who agree strongly with the idea.

The findings come amid increasing concern that some universities are failing.

At a closed seminar this week on the collapse of quality control at Thames Valley University, Geoffrey Alderman, Middlesex University pro vice-chancellor, reportedly queried whether TVU was worse than other institutions. He claimed that several universities have problems "as bad". The QAA found that TVU was unable to guarantee the quality of its degrees. Professor Alderman is due to publish evidence of "dumbing down" in universities later this month.

Quality experts also raised questions this week over whether the teaching quality assessment system in higher education is failing, following exclusive analysis of TQA scores by The THES. The analysis, which includes previously unpublished data on teaching quality assessment, reveals that more than half of assessments so far undertaken in 1998-99 have resulted in "excellent" grades for departments.

Of the 262 visits in 12 subject areas, 56.5 per cent have resulted in departments gaining at least 22 out of 24 marks, the threshold for an "excellent". The findings show a continuing trend of rising grades, with 33.9 per cent gaining excellent ratings in the full 1996-98 round compared with 24.8 per cent in 1995-96.

Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, said: "This is the upward trend I have always warned about. It is inevitable that people are learning how to play the game. The QAA needs to stop teams being soft."

Mantz Yorke, director of Liverpool John Moores University's centre for higher education development, is investigating "dumbing down" with Professor Alderman. He said: "We should only have a performance indicator for a couple of years because people get used to it. We cannot tell what is presentation and what is substance."

Although the TQA exercise is being phased out after the millennium, hundreds of departments still have to be assessed.

Peter Milton, director of subject review at the QAA, said that the upward trend illustrated improving quality, not easier assessments. "The overall TQA/subject review exercise since 1993 has led to significant improvements in practice, however much its detractors like to pretend otherwise.

"Equally, institutions, filled as they are with intelligent people, have learned how to maximise their chances of obtaining higher ratings from subject reviewers. If this brings about improvements in practice, the QAA welcomes it."

The QAA revealed this week that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had criticised its governance and management following an audit.

HEFCE would not give details, but the QAA said there were 22 recommendations and it was implementing an action plan.

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