Is it time to unleash the watchdog to safeguard our degree standards?

Roger Brown and Geoffrey Alderman ask if the QAA and the external examining system must change to continue to ensure quality

July 17, 2008

It is gratifying that the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills will hold an evidence session on standards in universities.

We say this for two reasons. First, because there is considerable prima facie evidence to suggest that all may not be well with the processes through which the quality of degrees is safeguarded (which could point to problems with the underlying quality of the student achievement that the award of a degree denotes). Secondly, because there appears to be a reluctance on the part of the authorities (the Government, the funding councils and possibly the Quality Assurance Agency) and of the sector, or at least its representative bodies, to address this.

This is puzzling because of the domestic and international importance of the standing of UK degrees. We can think of no matter more vital to the future of UK higher education than this. So this session is very timely.

We have not yet seen the detailed terms of reference. But to judge by the comments of Phil Willis, the chairman of the committee, the immediate focus will be on whether institutions are doing enough to ensure that standards are being maintained. In this context, reference is often made to the external examining system, through which academics from another institution check internal assessments to see that the standards set are comparable to those of other institutions.

External examining goes back many years. It has also been the subject of several major inquiries over the past 25 years. Three sets of developments have now combined to put a serious question mark over it.

The first is the substantial evidence that has emerged over a long period about a lack of professionalism - by institutions, departments and academics - in the practice of assessment (references can be supplied, and they include several reports by the QAA). This raises questions about the validity and reliability of any means of accrediting student learning through an award. This in turn means that the question of whether to continue with the classified honours degree or to replace it with a "higher education achievement report" or some other device is a sideshow. (It also, incidentally, exposes institutions to the serious risk of challenge by aggrieved students.)

These imperfections would matter less were it not for the second factor, the enormous expansion and diversification of the sector since the mid-1980s. It is, after all, the job of the external examiner to pick up serious weaknesses - and in particular serious and unexplained variations in marking - in internal assessments. But this has been made much harder - some would say impossible - by the huge increase in the categories of work being assessed at each stage of a student's course and by the proliferation of joint and interdisciplinary and modular programmes. Introduced for a variety of academic, economic and consumerist reasons, these have put enormous pressure on what is still fundamentally a subject-based system. Modularity in particular pushes external examiners away from judging the work of individual candidates and towards assessing the teaching and learning system. (Matters would, of course, be assisted by more training of external examiners, but this is patchy: the whole system is run on a shoestring.)

However, a third factor has now brought matters to a head: the competitive pressures on institutions, and especially managers, resulting from a combination of variable fees and bursaries, league tables, greater consumerism and greater commercialisation on top of longstanding resource pressures. These forces, which lie behind the evidence of cheating and the apparent grade inflation, are the nub of the matter.

As these pressures are unlikely to abate, the question is whether the existing institutional processes for safeguarding standards, and the external processes for scrutinising those internal processes, need to be strengthened. There are two issues here. One is whether the existing audit regime needs to test more thoroughly, and directly, the ways in which institutions set, protect and refine their standards, for example by ensuring that externals see a much higher proportion of candidates' scripts. The other, which the reaction to the evidence of cheating and grade inflation raises, is whether the authority that provides the necessary reassurance, the QAA, should not be fully independent of both the sector and the Government and able to look at the full range of interactions between management, resourcing, marketing and academic affairs within institutions. We look forward to the committee's deliberations.

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