Plans for assuring quality in higher education stalled this week as vice-chancellors and principals rejected them as "unacceptable" and the Quality Assurance Agency seemed poised to reject all alternatives.
In a submission to the QAA's three-week consultation, the Standing Conference of Principals said it was "totally opposed" to a number of QAA proposals. SCOP is forming a united front with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Scottish Standing Conference of Principals and Heads of Higher Education, Wales.
The QAA plans to band universities in three categories - excellent, approved and not approved - according to quality of teaching, allowing a single summative judgement to be made for each university department. It has also suggested an elite band of institutions could be given "beacon" status.
But SCOP says a single summative rating would "mislead" the public. It could encourage them to assume comparability where it did not exist, leading them to make "invalid" comparisons between institutions with different aims and objectives. SCOP is "totally opposed to any notion that an excellent category should be restricted to a small number of examples".
With support from the other representative bodies, SCOP has put forward an alternative framework under which summative judgements would be rejected in favour of "graded action points". Published reports on each institution's departments would offer a list of points for commendation and points for improvement, as currently used in institutional audits.
The points for improvement would be categorised on a three-point scale - as "essential", "advisable" or "desirable". This would provide a more balanced overview of key strengths and weaknesses.
The QAA said it was considering the responses to the consultation, but it seems likely it will resist the alternatives. Its blueprint has backing from the funding councils, and it is understood that ministers are keen to ensure that single summative judgements can be maintained. CVCP chief executive Diana Warwick said she was "hopeful" that a system acceptable to the sector could be agreed.
SCOP and the CVCP were due to meet the QAA in an attempt to end the deadlock this week.