Engage with quality assurance or face state takeover, scholars told

Academy autonomy being eroded by 'power creep', former QAA head warns. Rebecca Attwood reports

November 19, 2009

Academics must act now to stop the Government from further eroding the autonomy of universities, the former head of the Quality Assurance Agency has warned.

Delivering the Lord Upjohn Lecture in London last week, Peter Williams said he believed the Government wanted to use the QAA for its own purposes and feared it would succeed unless the academic community changed its attitude to the quality assurance process.

He told the Association of Law Teachers that such efforts were part of a wider shift in power away from autonomous higher education institutions towards a "much greater" degree of state control, a shift that had left the QAA fighting to maintain its independence.

In his lecture on 12 November, Mr Williams said that when he became head of the Academic Audit Unit in 1990, he had a vision of a scholar-led approach to quality assurance that was not based on "bureaucracies, form-filling or committees".

However, universities' internal processes are now largely run by administrators, he said. This was something he "rather regretted" because he believed quality could be assured only by those directly involved in teaching and learning.

The current arrangement was partly the result of "a degree of hostility or a lack of interest" from scholars, he suggested.

Academics and administrators had become engaged in an "unholy pact", he said, with administrators telling academics to "do as we say and we'll keep the QAA off your backs".

But Mr Williams urged academics to engage in the debate on the future of quality assurance, warning that failure to do so would invite greater government control.

"I think the Government is trying to use, or would like to use, the QAA for its own purposes ... and this will succeed if the academic community doesn't take ownership of quality assurance," he said.

"It may be too late for that now - the horse may have bolted. If not, I would urge the academic community to take a stronger, constructive and positive interest in what is going on in quality assurance."

He said he believed the Higher Education Funding Council for England was taking steps to increase its influence over quality assurance as a result of government pressure.

And he noted that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had rejected recent proposals for a concordat detailing the limits of university autonomy.

Such a document would have prevented the Government from being able to "slowly but surely ... exercise influence and 'power creep' into the world and work of universities".

The autonomy of universities, he argued, was "a basic requisite" of a modern democracy.

"Modern democracies have a habit of moving away from being democratic, it would seem to me, and this country is in that position, I feel. Universities have to stand firm, they have to argue, they have to speak truth to power."

Earlier this month, Mr Williams revealed that in summer 2008, he was called into the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and admonished for telling the media that the system used to classify degrees was "rotten".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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