Give quality respect it deserves

October 15, 1999

The media treatment of the Quality Assurance Agency's activity is becoming part of the story itself.

It portrays an agency at war with the sector in an often personalised way, with pictures of John Randall, and it recycles stories about shenanigans in the office.

The cumulative effect is irresponsible. It is creating an image of perpetual crisis, encouraging utopian dreams of a world free of quality assurance and the image of an agency on the brink of collapse.

This, in turn, raises the temperature in which the new framework is being developed. Two quite important points are being lost in the noise.

The first is that universities worldwide are subject to different forms of accountability, and pressure for accountability has increased with the emergence of mass higher education.

There is a myth that United States universities are somehow free from this burden. They, too, face diverse forms of accountability, through federal government, regional accreditation agencies and state governments.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, for example, estimates that 200 individuals work on accreditation reviews each year, with extensive accreditation requirements for individual programmes, while the institution is accredited every ten years.

This, the university reckons, is a three-year process. It is quite a burden, but it seems to be carried by the administration. In the UK, academics shoulder the burden. That is partly a function of scale and choice - academics prefer to own the process and do the work rather than surrender it to administrators.

The second point concerns the framework of accountability being developed by the QAA. I am confident that we shall see a system that moves gradually away from assessment towards audit, from a system based on an assessment visit towards a system that seeks to work within naturally occurring events and draws on evidence generated through the institution's own work of review and reflection.

In time, this shift will be more significant than the move towards benchmarks and programme specifications, which provides an opportunity for subject specialists to articulate standards but also adds to the appearance of an overly bureaucratic and interventionist model of quality assurance.

In the shift from assessment to audit, there is a danger of "permanent review", in which academic advisers "pop in" to any naturally occurring event and have a right to read any routine correspondence. The spectre of a permanent QAA parking place is real, and it is being encouraged by those who think that academics can manage the process.

Protocols need to be developed around the new forms of review to ensure that judgements are secure and to protect the QAA and the institution. My experience as an "institutional facilitator" has led me to value the role of the "subject review chair" - they keep academic reviewers in check. I have a romantic attachment to the notion of review as a process, but it is easier to manage a scheduled visit.

It is a pain to have to write a self-assessment document, but I would rather steer reviewers to the issues that matter than have them flounder around in a course director's filing cabinets.

These dreary, routine matters are the issues that count. Getting them right is critical to the future.

If the issues are not resolved, the battle of words will become trench warfare, with academic advisers and institutions struggling to define their roles. This would not be good for higher education.

P. A. Jones Pro vice-chancellor University of Sheffield

Soapbox, page 18

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