In ourselves we trust: if quality is the aim, think outside the tick-box

What can a Dutch traffic experiment show us about higher education teaching standards? Rather a lot, Gary Thomas and Nick Peim insist

July 14, 2011



Credit: Andy Bunday


Quality's place in the university lexicon is established: we talk about quality as easily as we breathe - it's no more than a glottal stop; it's a "y'know". It's almost as though the more you say it in university life, the more you have of it. And if you speak out against "quality" you're made to feel as if you are in favour of shoddiness, substandardness or carelessness. Fecklessness? We love it, we do.

But when we resist increasing calls for quality we're not, of course, resisting quality per se. We're resisting the urge that inspired the use of the word and the behemoth that has come to accompany it.

The urge was in the drive to audit, the itch to compel, the aversion to trust. It created a landscape of boxes waiting to be ticked - stairways of boxes up into the sky to new levels of excellence. Excellence upon excellence. Quality in excelsis.

But wasn't that all part of a 20th-century way of looking at things: the organisation as machine, with regulators and feedback - person-proof, fail-safe machinery, clicking away? A 21st-century way is surely to give trust back.

Trust can work so well: in the town of Drachten, in the Netherlands, a remarkable experiment has been taking place that is now being copied in more and more places. It's called the "naked street" and is based on the ideas of the Dutch road engineer Hans Monderman. Areas of the town are stripped of regulation - denuded of kerbs, traffic lights, lines on the road, signs and even railings. The aim is to make the territory belong to the pedestrians rather than the drivers.

By making the ground look as if it belongs to walkers rather than cars, the responsibility for avoiding death shifts from the pedestrian to the driver. It encourages drivers to think of themselves not as automatons punished or rewarded by authority's hand but as active participants, involved and engaged.

In this respect, at least, car drivers are the same as teachers in higher education. We work better when we are involved and engaged.

But "quality" is not, sadly, a word to inspire engagement. In fact, most of us can almost feel the brain cells keeling over and expiring at its mere mention. It represents someone else being responsible - it makes them masters and us servants: they draw the boxes, we do the ticks.

Where you have audit, trust is the casualty. And trust is policed not by some manager with a cupboard full of tick-boxes but by the community. For trust creates trustworthiness: those who are not trustworthy will be exiled. The community will do it. Cultures of a thousand kinds prove it: it's not just in Drachten that trust is proving itself.

People need to be trusted or they become disinterested observers - merely doing stuff because they have to, rather than because they want to. And where trust withers you lose the eager, intelligent involvement of staff.

What's the solution? What would Hans Monderman have suggested? Back to the naked street. Remove the fences; erase the criteria. Get back to trust.

How do you enable trust to work? The problem has always been that if your bosses are not trusted by their own boss - ultimately someone in government - it is difficult for them to trust those for whom they themselves have responsibility.

If the minister makes them produce ticks, they are more or less obliged to ask their employees for ticks. If they don't, then what are they to say when the man from the ministry comes around, jabs his finger at his clipboard and demands "Where are your ticks? Where are your employees' ticks?" Do they mutter something weakly about trust? Trust? Snort.

But a thoughtful minister for universities and science seems to be reversing 30 years of targets a bit; seems to be easing off the criteriology pedal, intelligently softening ideas about "impact" and even targets.

The time has come, the new White Paper says, for "very substantial deregulatory change" on quality. There is talk of quality assessment triggered only in unusual circumstances.

Universities are being trusted to be, if not quite naked, scantily clad. We now need to be careful not to misplace the trust that has been placed in us; to find ways ourselves of fostering trust rather than ratcheting up the audit internally. As long as the box-ticking isn't just shunted along the line, the time for higher education's Drachten - time for its naked street - has perhaps come.

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