Demonstrating the quality of university teaching will become increasingly important under the new Labour government, according to the incoming higher education minister.
Margaret Hodge, who was appointed this week, said that the focus would be on the student, the removal of barriers to university entry and the raising of standards.
She said she understood that there were tensions between the Quality Assurance Agency and institutions. "Equally, we want to ensure that we have high-quality teaching in all our universities. We need to develop something that has the respect of all the players.
"In the early days of Ofsted (the schools inspectorate), parents didn't look at Ofsted reports - now they do. Students will take a greater and keener interest (in QAA reports) in future. Students care a lot about teaching standards."
In her first interview since being appointed higher education minister, Ms Hodge said her personal experience had helped to formulate her attitude to standards.
She said: "I was at the London School of Economics in the 1960s. I was off university for six months after I injured my back and nobody knew I wasn't there. I wrote one essay in my three years at the LSE and I got a third. I don't think I am intellectually incompetent. The quality of the teaching of students matters, as does the support. I should have been forced to do more work. It was outrageous."
Ms Hodge reaffirmed the Labour manifesto pledge for the expansion of higher education. "Our ambition is for 50 per cent of under-30s to have access to higher education by 2010. My task is to see how we get there.
"This administration is about implementation and what I need to identify are the barriers that are preventing individuals from achieving their potential and to strengthening the economy."
Ms Hodge said she had some idea of the financial problems facing institutions and individuals and hinted at a future review of the student support system, including a look at extending targeted maintenance grants.
"I was chair of the House of Commons education select committee and one of the things we looked at was the funding of higher education, but that report was published in early 1998 and life moves on. We have introduced a new system of finance and we have now got to think about it. Is it working in the way we intended? Do we need to think about various aspects of it?" The Association of University Teachers warned against increasing the burden of accountability.
General secretary David Triesman said: "Estelle Morris (the new education secretary) and Margaret Hodge will find close friends in the unions if they signal an end to the culture of excessive regulation that has become a burden on lecturers and researchers in recent years.
"If the government can continue to provide additional investment in higher education, then university staff are prepared to meet the challenge of a 50 per cent participation rate by 2010," he added.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed Ms Hodge's appointment. "UUK will be pressing for additional funds to ensure higher education can maintain its world-class reputation. Our universities and colleges need at least another £900 million a year. The status quo is not an option."
- Funding and quality chiefs will announce plans for a rethink of the university quality-assurance regime early next month, writes Phil Baty .
The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Quality Assurance Agency are to consult on the future of the quality regime in early July. Hefce hopes a new quality assurance blueprint will be ready by summer 2002.
Hefce's board was to agree plans this week for a 40 per cent reduction in the volume of teaching quality assessment activity (subject review) by the QAA, as ordered earlier this year by former education secretary David Blunkett. But the Blunkett plan, which exempts top-performing departments from future inspections, will be implemented for one year only to ensure the data remain current.
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