Funders forced to rethink quality

April 14, 1995

An acrimonious public row erupted at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week when quality - which had originally been left off the agenda - took centre stage.

At the end of two heated debates the funding council agreed to consult more widely with vice chancellors before submitting proposals for a single quality assurance body to the Government.

The council wants its own system of subject-based assessments to form the basis of any new framework.

It was forced into a further month's consultation both by the anger of vice chancellors and by the Government's failure to endorse an assessment-based approach rather than the audit-based one vice chancellors want.

Tim Boswell, further and higher education minister, said he had hoped that "some of the best minds in the land" would have come up with proposals for a workable single quality body - but this had not happened.

"If that is the final position, then I think that we may have to continue with separate programmes of audit and assessment," he said.

The present dual system is seen as time-wasting and expensive. The funding council plans to visit all departments in universities, but it is not clear where the money for this programme of visits will come from. In his final speech as chief executive of the funding council, Graeme Davies said he was "astonished" that the chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals had written to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education to complain about a lack of consultation.

He said that he would be "delighted to hear the constructive other side of the debate" but that no papers had been forthcoming from the CVCP.

In the absence of the CVCP chairman, Leslie Wagner, vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, told Professor Davies: "Your version of reality is a little different from the version presented to the CVCP. We seem to have shoot-outs on this issue and not dialogues".

He accused the council of intransigence, arguing that the CVCP had presented no written documents because the Secretary of State had charged the funding council, and not the CVCP, with drawing up proposals for a new body. By the end of the conference, however, vice chancellors made it clear that they would be drawing up their own paper.

Graham Zellick, principal of Queen Mary and Westfield College, told Professor Davies: "Institutions have lost all confidence in your ability to take our strongly held views into account."

In response, Professor Davies argued that an audit-based system would not comply with Government guidance on accountability. A CVCP spokesman said: "It is by no means certain that our proposals do not satisfy these provisions - a more creative dialogue on this point might provide a solution."

Brandon Gough, chairman of the funding council, said that the assessment process seemed to be working and that the council was anxious not to throw it out. He said that it could be "modified" to produce a closer alignment with audit.

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