IUSS reaction: Right questions, wrong answer

QAA chief Peter Williams gives his verdict on the IUSS report

August 2, 2009

We’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee report on students and universities, so what’s the verdict? On the whole, it’s a worthy document. The questions asked are the right ones. The analysis, where the evidence is sound (which is not, by any means, everywhere – as in its description of the US system), is thoughtful. The recommendations, where the committee reins in its tendency to want to create centralising and controlling bureaucracies, are certainly worth careful consideration, for example in the discussions about the future arrangements for quality assurance in England.

At the report’s heart is a distrust of autonomy. Universities should not have the freedom to set their own standards, it believes; this should be done by the Quality Assurance Agency (or its renamed manifestation, the Quality and Standards Agency). The standards should be inspected by the QAA; whistleblowers should be able to have resort to the QAA; external examiners should be approved by the QAA; “the quality of teaching” should be reviewed by the QAA; degree-awarding powers should be removable by the QAA; assessment methods should be checked by the QAA; honours degree classes should be defined by the QAA; and so on. The only thing it seems the QAA won’t be doing is checking the cleanliness of the toilets.

Whoa, there! Autonomy has a purpose and a value. It’s a defence against state control of higher learning; it allows diversity, creativity and innovation. It’s a very big plus – which the rest of Europe is beginning to emulate – not a minus. Universities are not schools needing a national curriculum and a national examination. The destruction or serious dilution of institutional autonomy would be an act of cultural vandalism similar to book burning. But the select committee has come up with one good idea in respect of autonomy: the creation of a concordat between the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the universities and student bodies to define the nature and limits of institutional autonomy. While this may have the drawbacks of any written constitution, it might also help to reduce the constant nibbling away at the freedom of action of our higher education institutions.

The committee is also right to recognise that the QAA itself needs greater freedom to determine the external quality assurance agenda, and to act more quickly to respond to perceived problems. The current constraints it operates under do not serve the sector’s best interests, let alone those of students and the wider public. A more independent agency, together with a greater willingness by the sector to take its collective responsibilities more seriously and act accordingly, would be a far better option than the reincarnation of the Council for National Academic Awards, as it was in its earliest days (one of the more bizarre ideas mentioned in the report).

The committee believes there is “defensive complacency” at the top of the sector and “no appetite to explore key issues”. As any good interviewer will tell you (and as I can confirm), the nature and tone of the responses received are largely dictated by the manner in which the questions are posed.

So, as we have probably all been expecting, the committee chairman Phil Willis’s parting shot is a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. But it needs to be taken seriously, even if alternative remedies may offer a better cure for a not very sick patient.

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