Ensure standards with a light touch

April 17, 1998

Today and yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been holding its annual meeting. On Monday, the Quality Assurance Agency will hold a consultative conference on its proposals for the new quality regime. Both events serve to draw attention away from the all-absorbing question of money to the developing regulatory regime in higher education.

The English funding council will consider its funding methodologies for access, teaching and research. On research many views have been canvassed in these pages, views that range from abolishing the research assessment exercise to keeping things much as they are but with a five-year cycle. Such fire as there is in this debate could be doused by enough extra cash to fund the best better without the rest losing.

Teaching is more difficult. Everyone needs to teach well. As James Wright points out (left), applying the same rules as for research is dubious. There has been a long-running argument as to whether extra money for teaching should go to reward those who are best at it (according to subject assessors), thereby raising the status of teaching and providing an incentive for improvement, or whether it should go to those who are worst to help make them better. Where departments have scored low for teaching quality, this has often been because of inadequate resources.

For good or ill, this argument has been settled. This is partly because the government stepped sideways into the debate with its instruction to the funding council to find a way of rewarding teaching excellence that would guarantee Oxford and Cambridge continued subsidies. It is partly because the RAE has shown how powerful an incentive money is in modifying academic behaviour. HEFCE, determined to improve the status of teaching, is therefore considering not whether, but how to link funding to high scores in teaching assessments.

As with the RAE, people will now focus on making the case for the option that best rewards what they do: managers may want extra cash in block grants; high-scoring departments may want most ring-fenced as is the case with the council's present teaching initiatives.

Given the decision to link funding to high scores, HEFCE's consultation is inevitably linked to the QAA consultation: QAA assessments will provide the basis for distributing extra teaching cash. Two weeks ago on this page, Sir Stewart Sutherland drew attention to the peremptory tone and highly intrusive nature of the QAA's plans. Under chief executive John Randall, the QAA has gleefully grasped the opportunities offered by the Dearing committee's recommendations and the government's endorsement of them. He is consulting, but as with HEFCE, the consultation concerns the second order: how should the new cadre of registered external examiners operate? Is 41 the right number of subject groups? Is the timetable realistic? How can the frameworks for qualifications "encompass all HE awards at all levels"?

The big decisions have been taken: a qualifications framework will be developed; it will be linked to subject benchmark information and threshold standards; institutions will be required to set out intended objectives and outcomes in programme specifications; verification of standards will be undertaken by registered external examiners.

The fear is that universities and colleges are losing their power to order their own affairs. As Sir Stewart said: "The danger for a senate in all of this is that responsibility for setting and maintaining standards, for defining what counts as a degree of that university, will be taken from it - the ultimate form of academic emasculation."

The response is that this fear is unjustified: the new regime is concerned only with thresholds, with protecting the public at home and abroad from shoddy goods. The consultation documents are couched in words that express concern about maintaining diversity and not stifling innovation, that ask for better ways to achieve the same ends, and that appeal for the academic community to help design the ties that bind so that they chafe as little as possible.

It is too late to demand that the whole regulatory regime be rethought: Dearing sold that pass. There is indeed little evidence that the academic community at large shares Sir Stewart's anger at what is being done. But much can still be achieved by energetic attention to the detail. John Randall may be a getter-on, but he is also more pragmatic than he might wish people to think.

Scattered through the QAA document are references to the need for consensus, the need to test ideas. And evidence to date suggests modification is possible given firm resistance. There is now, for example, the possibility that institutions with robust arrangements of their own may be subject to a "lighter touch". There is some softening of the proposal that the cadre of external examiners should report to the QAA and the institution - though the QAA would still expect access to their reports later.

Checking the regulatory juggernaut will mean hard, detailed work, and who can do it? The normal agencies are not available. The QAA is an emanation from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and the CVCP is if anything over-eager to be helpful to the government. The Association of University Teachers broadly supports the Dearing blueprint. There is no focus around which sustained criticism can coalesce, and there is some prospect of extra pay and position for those who join in. The QAA has patronage, as it points out in its document.

The irony is that universities are now cooperating in the re-creation of a central body analogous to the Council for National Academic Awards but more dirigiste and embracing all universities. The CNAA was swept away in 1993 at the insistence of the new universities, which saw it as incompatible with their new autonomy. Real universities did not have to be under central tutelage. The CNAA's Royal Charter was returned to the Privy Council.

This now seems a pity. The CNAA may have been irritating, but it could have evolved into an accrediting agency. Its approach, which was to validate and accredit what institutions themselves wanted to do, fostered diversity and sanctioned innovation while providing the public with a kite-mark of quality. CNAA, unlike QAA, was not about requiring "compliance" to centrally devised codes of practice, qualifications frameworks, standards benchmarks and programme templates.

What is happening in higher education now is a further tightening of state control of higher education, which has been growing for 40 years. The form it takes this time is another example of the government's attempt at branding Britain. Higher education is to become a standardised product that can be sold round the world, as further and higher education minister Baronness Blackstone and the revamped Education and Training Exports Group will be doing in Brazil next week (page 7).

It is ironic that the European government that most favours a United States-style entrepreneurial economy, is turning its back on the lessons to be learnt from the diverse higher education system that underpins that economy. They are trying instead to underpin a US-style economy with a European, even Napleonic, higher education system - just as such systems are being stretched to destruction in Europe.

It is one thing to try to ensure that minimum standards are maintained. It is another to impose detailed regulations on high-quality institutions with well-established international brand images of their own. The risk to creativity and quality of enforced compliance to lowest common denominators is too great.

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