Just say no, in a very proper protest

November 18, 1994

The publication by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of its decisions on the assessment of teaching quality in 1995 and 1996 confronts universities with their most serious challenge since the council was established.

The principal absurdity arises from the contrast between the complexity of what is being assessed and the triviality of the method adopted. A claim of excellence made by a department with perhaps 20 or 30 members of faculty, and 200 or 300 undergraduates, is determined by a visit lasting two-and-a-half days. It is difficult to understand how anyone could believe that judgements of any value would result from so superficial an exercise.

We have the ridiculous scene, several times repeated, of a stranger sitting at the back of a lecture and reporting whether it was well constructed, had a beginning and a middle and an end (preferably in that order), whether eye contact was maintained, whether the jokes were appropriate. At a seminar, the amount of student participation was considered important although the assessor could know nothing of the dynamics of that group, who was to be encouraged to speak and who to be restrained, what had happened the previous week, what was likely to happen next week, the idiosyncrasies and characteristics of particular students -- all of which are properly taken into account by the teacher. This snapshot technique, which the funding council inevitably described as a "unique opportunity", is not so much worthless as positively misleading.

Particular anger was expressed when it was realised that an institution could be denied its claim to excellence on the basis of its 12-page submission alone. Now the funding council has met this complaint by imposed visitations by assessors in all cases, thus maximising and universalising the inadequacies and inefficiencies of the system.

But this is not all. Under the new dispensation, six core aspects are to be assessed: curriculum, teaching, student progress, student support, resources, and quality assurance. Each will attract a one to four grading and the award of the lowest grade (one) will mean a warning which may lead to a withdrawal "in whole or part" of funding.

From the beginning the Government has insisted that teaching quality should "inform funding" but hitherto this has not happened. The new grading system is the first step towards implementation and this is reinforced by the words of the chief executive of the funding council, Graeme Davies: it has "many advantages, including parallelling the research selectivity exercise". This raises the new assessment of teaching from just another example of funding council ineptitude to the level of policy making on a grand scale.

Once the grading is in place, finance for teaching will be formula-driven and the principle already applied to research will dominate: unto everyone that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Two deeply flawed formulas will then drive the many universities with the poorest resources, material and human, further down, while the richer will have abundance, and the present gross inequalities of provision will be magnified.

Over the years, the old-style Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has been criticised for its failure to confront the Government. When questioned on this, individual vice chancellors reply either that co-operation at the time seemed likely to prevent worse happenings, or that numerous (other) v-cs were secretly in favour of the changes.

The new-style CVCP is a vastly different body but inherently fissiparous, its leaders showing few signs of wanting to bind the parts into a whole especially if they suffer financially by so doing. Yet solidarity is essential if the Government is to be withstood. Other professional bodies, especially the British Medical Association, are in the same predicament.

If nothing is done, the financial arrangements will destroy the profession. Teaching and research money will be finally divided, performance indicators will be installed, strict accountability for the product of research will be added to the present grading, individuals will be required to make returns on the number of hours spent on research, teaching and administration. This will be followed by performance-related pay. And collegiality -- the last enemy -- will give way to individuated accounting.

None of this need happen. Quality can be enhanced -- as it should be -- by the profession's own auditing body ensuring that the proper procedures are in place in each institution. Otherwise, for its present purposes, the Government relies almost entirely on the members of the profession. The statutory obligation on the funding council is to secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide financial support. No doubt there are many ways in which the council can so secure that provision. But there is no obligation on the universities to provide the necessary staff.

So the response of the universities should be to decline the invitation to nominate assessors. This involves no hint of illegality or impropriety. It would, no doubt, be a small beginning, but could be the first application of that residue of power still remaining in the concept of university autonomy.

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