Former quality chief calls for regular reviews of degree-awarding powers

Roger Brown says a 'heads in the sands' attitude could damage standards, writes John Gill

November 13, 2008

Universities should have their power to award degrees reviewed every few years as part of a raft of measures to maintain standards, said a former quality assurance chief.

Proposing a radical overhaul of the way university standards are monitored, Roger Brown, who was chief executive of the now-defunct Higher Education Quality Council, also argued that the current Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) could advise the Government on whether a university should continue to receive public funding.

Professor Brown, currently professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University, used a lecture at London Metropolitan University this week to claim that vice-chancellors were guilty of adopting a "heads in the sand" attitude to the growing threats to quality.

Ideally, Professor Brown said, every institution should have its degree-awarding powers reviewed and renewed every few years.

Despite acknowledging that such a move would be controversial, he said the QAA's institutional audit, which takes place every seven years, should be as tough as when institutions apply for degree-awarding powers for the first time.

This, he said, could be the basis of a new system of accreditation that would allow the QAA to advise the Government whether to continue to fund an institution.

In this scenario, the QAA would take over the auditing functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which could then merge with the Student Loans Company, making a single body that would be responsible for the public funding of universities and another for monitoring how they used their funds.

Professor Brown also suggested that each institution's curriculum should be regularly reviewed by academic experts from other universities. The inspectors would establish the aims of a programme (whether the institution was doing all it could to help students achieve them) and determine if the aims were worthwhile. The reports of these findings would then be published.

A third proposal is for the QAA's remit to be widened to cover resource allocation, marketing and academic decisions, with greater independence from both the Government and the sector, possibly through the award of a Royal Charter.

Professor Brown concluded: "I acknowledge the danger that these proposals will be seized upon by those who think that quality in higher education is a relatively simple matter, and who believe all that is needed is to bring the universities under the heel of Ofsted or a similar body.

"But an even greater danger is to follow what appears to be the Universities UK line and hope that all this stuff about quality will go away so that they can get back to the real business of marketing themselves and their institutions."

Professor Brown added: "We have to prevent market pressures from getting any further into our academic decision-making. Academic judgments must remain in academic hands."

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