Academics employed by the Quality Assurance Agency to assess higher education teaching are painting too rosy a picture, an expert has claimed.
Universities are paying such academics up to Pounds 1,000 a day to train departments to get top marks for their subject quality reviews, The THES can reveal.
The attack on the teaching quality assessment system, by Geoffrey Alderman, Middlesex University pro-vice chancellor for quality assurance, comes as a THES analysis reveals a big rise in the number of departments being awarded "excellent" grades.
Out of 262 subject review reports completed so far in the current round of TQAs, over half have awarded more than 22 out of 24 points- the equivalent of excellent under the previous system.
There are still more than 100 further subject reviews to be undertaken before the round ends in 2000. But The THES has found that of the 84 reports published, 12 per cent of all departments have been given top marks of 24 out of 24, with a further 17 per cent gaining 23 marks, and a further 24 per cent receiving 22 out of 24.
Provisional analysis by the professional courses' unit at Lancaster University found that the average departmental score has risen from 20.05 out of 24 in 1995-96, to 21.8 in the current round.
Professor Alderman, a former TQA assessor who acts as a consultant to institutions on the exercise, said it is becoming far too easy to learn how to score highly.
He said: "I am routinely asked to give presentations on how to prepare for the TQA, in both old - sometimes very old - and new universities. I know of institutions who copy phrases out of other institutions' self-assessment reports, and if an assessor criticises them, they'll say: 'Poppleton used this phrase, and you gave them top marks'.
"Everyone is exchanging documents and best practice tips. Any person who would say the exercise is a piece of cake is a fool, as there are always banana skins, but it is becoming formulaic."
Professor Alderman also believes that the assessors can be too close to institutions. The QAA publishes a list of assessors, and Professor Alderman claims that they are being recruited by universities - and handsomely paid. "They are getting money from the QAA to be assessors, and they are getting money from Poppleton University for dress rehearsals. It's a nice little earner," he said.
The average fee is about Pounds 600 a day for training or seminar presentations, but it can be up to Pounds 1,000. One source said: "The money for training is one of the attractions. It's a nice cottage industry, and many take up the job as they approach retirement."
Professor Alderman also believes the assessors are not exercising proper scrutiny. "Assessors are idiosyncratic people - I know, I've been one myself," he said.
"Although I think they are not particularly lenient, they are taking a view about what is in the sector's interest. Is it in the interest of the sector that we have low scores?" Peter Milton, director of quality review at the QAA, has acknowledged that institutions are learning how to maximise their chances. But he said it was "dangerous to analyse a two-year programme half-way through".
He acknowledged that the provisional figures showed achievement was "significantly higher than in previous years", but said: "We do not regard the increasing scores as anything other than a welcome sign of better practice."