Institutions poised for quality role

April 19, 1996

Universities and higher education colleges would play a greater role in quality monitoring under plans unveiled this week by the joint planning group for a single quality agency, writes Tony Tysome.

But how layers of assessment can be cut to lessen the burden on institutions of extra staff time, administration and associated costs, is not discussed.

The planning group's interim report sets out a framework for a new regime which attempts to knit together quality audit and assessment, and for the constitution of the quality agency.

It proposes three layers of quality assurance - self-evaluation by institutions, and regular agency-managed external reviews at institution-wide level, and at subject/programme area level.

The paper, due to be considered yesterday in a workshop led by the planning group's chairman, Sir William Kerr Frazer, at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's annual conference in Telford, suggests the new regime would allow institutions to play a greater role, plan over a longer period, and reduce costs. But at the time of going to press Sir William was unavailable to comment on how the latter might be achieved.

Under the proposals all institutions would continue to be expected to have formal quality monitoring and review systems covering their main teaching and learning areas.

The planning group has agreed to look into two possible ways for the agency-managed reviews to reflect greater involvement of universities and colleges.

The first would give institutions the chance to appoint an observer on review teams, while the second would include staff appointed by and from an institution among review team members.

The subject/programme area reviews would take place every six to eight years, with teams composed of external academic and in some cases professional peers appointed by the agency, together with the institutional observer or members. Each review would involve self-evaluation by the relevant department, an analysis of that evaluation by the review team, leading to a report of strengths and weaknesses.

Institution-wide reviews would take place every five years, with review teams composed of peers appointed by the agency, together with institutional representatives.

The problem of streamlining the quality assurance regime has been left to the new agency to sort out. Plans to reduce the level of external assessment for institutions whose quality arrangements are judged to be mature are laid out only as a "general proposition", with the idea to be developed in 1997 by the agency. Developing the potential for greater collaboration with professional bodies is also left till next year.

The setting and attainment of academic standards would be addressed in each of the three quality assurance levels, the paper says. Self-evaluation at institution-wide and subject levels would need to include consideration of questions such as whether the standards sought are appropriate for qualifications offered.

The paper proposes that the new agency should be a company limited by guarantee, and registered as a charity. Its members would be the representative bodies of the heads of higher education institutions. There would be 14 directors, four nominated by the institutions, four by the funding councils, and six "independent" directors representing other interest groups such as employers and students. Directors would be appointed as individuals not mandated by their nominators.

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