IUSS reaction: ‘Quality control’ is the problem, not the solution

More of the same won’t allow us to reform the British system effectively, writes Florian Bieber

August 3, 2009

No research assessment exercise, research excellence framework, external examiners, double marking or moderation. What may sound like a dream to many academics (myself included) is the worst nightmare for higher education administrators and the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, to judge from its report on the state of universities that was published on 2 August.

The report recommends more quality controls, more standardisation and a greater role for external examiners and the Quality Assurance Agency. However, one might ask how America’s Ivy League universities manage without much of this? The reality is that rather than boosting the quality of university education, the logic of quality control is a major source of the problems that bedevil the UK sector.

Part of this lies in the apparent confusion between quality control and standardisation. While standards can secure a minimum of quality, they can also stifle the variation, creativity and maximum quality so essential to higher education.

There are four dynamics at work here:

a) standardisation runs contrary to the logic of quality-based differentiation

b) quality control often leads to increased workloads with few benefits

c) the discussion about widening participation is not linked with quality

d) and finally, the debate is insular.

The select committee’s report – indicative of much thinking about higher education – laments the lack of uniform standards across the sector. The authors appear infuriated that the vice-chancellors of the universities of Oxford and Oxford Brookes cannot answer the “simple question of whether students obtaining first-class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards”.

Herein lies standardisation’s fundamental logical flaw: you cannot have better universities without worse ones.

In brief, not every university can be Oxford or Harvard. It will always be difficult to compare a graduate from a lower-rated university programme with one from a top institution, even if the degree has the same name. However, there is nothing wrong with that. Some universities will always be better, meaning that their degrees cannot be identical to others. Trying to impose a uniform standard is likely to result in a drive towards the lowest common denominator rather than the highest level of quality.

In addition, the system of external examiners, double marking and moderation is more often than not a time-consuming waste of academics’ time. These standardisation tools have in-built disincentives that often result in everybody involved going through the motions of upholding standards, spending valuable time that might otherwise be used to increase the number of contact hours with students, the low number of which the report laments. More effective complaints mechanisms, as seen in the better US universities, are likely to be fairer than a bureaucratised system based on a fundamental distrust of the judgment of teaching staff.

Another key tension that is not sufficiently acknowledged in the report is the conflict between widening participation (that is, bringing students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the university system) and quality. Many such students will excel and enrich the sector; but at the same time many will pose a challenge to maintaining certain standards of education. This is not to say it is not worthwhile, but it is potentially a trade-off that must be confronted, something best done at a much earlier stage of the education process.

Finally, the select committee report draws on a visit to the US – but not a single European country – and recommends the community college model for the UK (clearly the authors did not visit many community colleges).

The report, in common with much of the debate on higher education reform, is very insular. For instance, the Bologna reform process, which is among the key tools for creating a European higher education space, is mentioned only in the footnotes. Indeed, this reflects the lack of debate on how the UK can integrate and maybe even learn from the experience of other European countries. No doubt the challenges that the often very hierarchical university systems in the rest of Europe face are greater than those in the UK, but this does not mean that nothing can be learnt from them.

More importantly, we are already part of a European academic space through research and exchange programmes such as Erasmus and the European Union’s Framework programmes, and it is time to stop ignoring this when it comes to reform. Although the US higher education sector is often even less aware of the world beyond its doors than ours, the fact that its universities are very diverse (from Deep Springs College in the Californian desert with 26 students to Harvard with about 20,000) allows for more creative learning.

In short, to improve the UK’s universities, we must stop recommending more of the same. Instead, thinking outside the box and looking harder beyond our shores might be a good starting point.

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