Gulf war in quality assurance

June 28, 1996

The furore created by the publication of the first report from the joint planning group for quality assurance in higher education has exposed the very considerable gulf that exists between the assumptions of the higher education sector and the expectations of the Government. The group has proposed the establishment of a single quality-assurance agency to oversee a triple-layered set of procedures: institutional self-evaluation; agency-managed subject/programme reviews; and agency-managed institution-wide reviews.

There are a number of grounds for the widespread rejection of these proposals. The sector requires a streamlined process that reduces the bureaucratic workload; what the group proposes amounts to little more than a crude bolting-together of audit, currently carried out by the Higher Education Quality Council, and assessment, currently the responsibility of the funding councils, with a nod in the direction of integrating the inspectorial work of professional and statutory bodies.

Academic standards are the responsibility of institutions, a concept that is central to the notion of academic autonomy; but the group has conflated quality and standards issues, and proposes that responsibility for standards be transferred to the new agency. The sector will be in a minority on the board of governors of the new agency; hence, academic self-regulation will cease.

In insisting that institutions and what it terms "subject communities" must "agree collectively what standards of attainment should be, and how they should be described", the group is paving the way for the national curricula for the sector.

How could a committee of senior academics have spent five months preparing proposals that were certain to be rejected? From the minutes of the group's proceedings I conclude that it has taken its cue from what it has been told by Government agencies, and has been unduly influenced by such statements.

This is especially so with regard to academic standards. At its very first meeting the group signalled its awareness of what it termed "political interest in this matter", and "acknowledged that the Government would want to see the matter of standards addressed in its (the group's) proposals". At its second meeting the group expressed "broad support" for an integrated quality-assurance process that assured both "fitness for purpose" and "fitness of purpose", "thus allowing quality and standards to be addressed".

The minutes of this meeting reflect the increasingly proactive stance of the Government in forcing the pace and direction of the group's deliberations. The Department of Education and Employment's "assessor" voiced her concern that a paper produced by the group's secretariat, An Integrated Process of External Quality Assurance, "had little to say about how standards issues were to be addressed. While this was important at both institutional and subject levels, she saw it as particularly important at the subject level. She would welcome greater clarity on the extra questions that will be asked of institutions in order to address standards, how responses will be recorded, and what impact they will have on the judgements and the published report." And David Watson, chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's quality assessment committee, applauded "the explicit integration of standards issues with quality issues" which, he said, "would help to resolve an area of uncertainty and confusion".

The Government is contemptuous of academic audit, partly because audit values and respects academic autonomy, but mainly because audit reports cannot be used to construct league tables on which funding can be based. The Government wishes to see the HEQC removed as a prelude to the eradication of the audit culture. At its February meeting the group heard a plea from John Stoddart, chairman of the HEQC, that "the simplest way to establish the new agency would be to re-constitute the HEQC under a new name and with appropriately revised articles of association".

On the face of it, this proposal made a great deal of sense. But the Government had already made clear its opposition to this notion. "The issue," the secretary of the HEFCE pointed out, "was a political one rather than a technical one". On March 1 the group vetoed Mr Stoddart's proposal, choosing instead to establish a completely new agency not based on any self-regulatory principle. At its meeting on April 4, the group agreed that the HEQC "would be wound up". The group established a working party, chaired by Professor Watson, to develop a framework for the single process it claims to have identified. This has now proposed that the reports of institution-wide reviews should not be placed "in the public domain". Audit is to be neutered.

Group members are said to be surprised at the level of hostility to its report. If the group is at all anxious to secure sectorwide backing it needs to adopt a position much less closely aligned to the desires of the Government. But it also needs to stop working behind closed doors, and instead to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the sector in the spirit of openness that ought - surely - to characterise all academic discussion.

Geoffrey Alderman is head of the academic and quality assurance unit at Middlesex University.

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