Fears that university teaching quality assessments are being rendered irrelevant by the rise of gamesmanship and the work of self-serving "cartels" of assessors have been fuelled by new analysis.
Latest data analysis shows a dramatic increase in the proportion of departments being awarded "excellent" grades by the Quality Assurance Agency, and a slump in departments being failed. It also shows that smaller subject areas are more likely to get better grades, raising the question of whether peer reviewers in specialist areas are being over-generous when judging the performance of their colleagues.
The research, by the Professional Courses Unit at Lancaster University, compares the results of 482 reports published in 1996-98 with the 197 reports so far published in the incomplete current round. It shows that the proportion of departments gaining the maximum score of 24 out of 24 has increased from 6 per cent, in the 1996-98 round, to 13.2 per cent so far in the current 1998-2000 round. The number of departments scoring 22 or more out of 24, usually considered to be "excellent", has increased from 33.8 per cent to 56.9 per cent.
There is a corresponding reduction in the number of poor grades given out. A single grade one in any of the six areas assessed represents a fail. Last year the QAA announced that any institution that scored a grade two in three or more areas will be subject to reinspection. Since then, the proportion of grade twos given out has decreased from 7 per cent in the last round to 2.8 per cent.
The findings follow revelations in The THES earlier this summer that universities are paying academics and QAA assessors up to Pounds 1,000 a day to train departments to get top marks in their subject reviews. The QAA has accepted institutions are learning how to maximise results, but argues the exercise has also led to genuine improvements in performance.