False measures

January 14, 2000

You report that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has "caved in" over plans for monitoring the quality of university teaching ("V-cs submit to quality blueprint", THES, January 7), saying they "have been brought into line by the funding councils, which insisted on a system in which simple, easily comparable judgements could be made, and by ministers, who prefer clearly accountable performance measures".

This highlights the pretence that lies behind so much education policy: the idea that in all areas there can be some simple basis for making judgements about quality.

The presumption is that, because the government "prefers" such a basis for accountability, there must be an adequate one; or that even highly defective modes of quality assessment are better than having to rely on the expert judgement of those who could have an axe to grind.

Aside from the damage that invalid measures of quality wreak, no-trust accountability systems have another effect. This is psychological and arises when people are continually forced to treat what they know to be false as if it were true: in this case to pretend that "quality measures" actually measure quality.

This pretence is especially damaging in universities, whose very task is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, a task that demands intellectual integrity.

The cruel irony is that undermining such integrity can only lead to a deterioration in the quality of teaching and research.

Martyn Hammersley

Professor of educational and social research

School of Education

The Open University

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