The powers that be have a month to sort out a system of quality assurance for higher education. There is a widespread view that it cannot be done: that too many incompatible demands are being made. Such defeatism is liable to lead to premature surrender.
The funding council which, up until now, has steamed ahead assuming that if it accepted what were probably intended as wrecking amendments from institutions - such as the demand for universal visiting and multiple grading - objections would fade away or be overridden by the Government, is now obliged to enter into serious discussions. The vice chancellors can therefore build on the stand they took before Easter.
The THES has engaged in the quality debate from the beginning, urging higher education to take ownership of this complicated and contentious matter lest systems be imposed which would jeopardise the autonomy and creativity of universities. To this end in 1993 we ran a conference on quality and commissioned a draft blueprint for a new system to focus discussion. The outcome was overwhelming support both at the conference and in a subsequent poll of readers for any quality agency to be owned by higher education. That must be the starting point. But higher education will need to offer substantial representation to independent people and observer status to the funding council so that it can be confident its legal responsibility is discharged.
The other marked feature of the THES conference was the overwhelming welcome for the analysis presented by Martin Trow. He argued that teaching quality depended on the personal, professional committment of academics to their students and could not be "assessed" because it is "not an action but a transaction; not an outcome but a process; not a performance but an emotional and intellectual connection between teacher and learner", its effects unknowable in the short-term. What could be assessed, he suggested, was the absence of teaching did people turn up to give their classes, were they sober and on time, did they read and respond to written work? Beyond this the key was hiring committed staff. Both, he argued, were the business of the internal management of the institution. Externally imposed assessment would undermine both personal committment and institutional self-confidence.
Experience has not invalidated Professor Trow's warning. All manner of "scams" have been used to secure good ratings. The second necessity then is that any new system places responsibility for quality squarely in institutions. How? Running two systems in parallel - institutionally-owned audit and funding council-owned assessment - if expensive, allows comparisons. It has also meant that the institutionally-owned model has been allowed to develop sharp teeth: they bit this week.
Where quality assurance and enhancement are concerned, the device which has emerged as most effective is the departmental review, a ferocious form of self scrutiny now widely adopted. It does not fit with inspection style assessment but, coupled with audit to ensure that reviews take place, that they involve appropriate outsiders and students, and that reports are acted upon, it does provide a model for a robust system. The funding council should accept it.
But the funding council is right that this does not answer demands for public accountability since such reviews must by their nature be confidential. Happily the means of meeting this demand is also to hand. The Higher Education Statistics Agency is about to come on stream with performance indicators which will provide standardised information across the whole of higher education and therefore the broad accountability the Government has every right to demand: completion rates, per capita spending, degree results compared to intake qualifications etc. The universities should give up their coyness about such indicators and learn to live with the resulting league tables.
What remains is the Government's longing for inspection of teaching and the funding council's belief it can provide something meaningful. This, as Martin Trow so eloquently explained, is deceptive, distorting and liable to diminish universities. It should be given up.