Last chance for autonomy?

October 17, 1997

Dearing on FE franchising: committee has right idea

It was recognised universally that the most important recommendations of the Dearing report would be on funding but many commentators felt its proposals for the control of standards and teaching quality would be of almost equal significance. Proposals on funding would inevitably be subject to close political scrutiny, whereas the recommendations on standards and quality control always stood a better chance of being implemented in full.

This chance is enhanced by the report's handing over of responsibility for standards to the Quality Assurance Agency, a body which emerged very recently out of the deliberations of the key sectoral interests in higher education (especially the funding councils and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals) in an attempt to bring together audit and assessment.

The QAA is a classic corporatist body headed by 14 directors, four nominated by the institutions, four by the funding councils, and six representing wider community interests who have a particular interest in sustaining higher education standards. Recommendation 24 of the Dearing report defines the key functions of the QAA as: quality assurance and public information; standards verification; the maintenance of the qualifications framework; and the need for each institution to encompass by 2001/02 in a code of practice its arrangements for these "as a condition of public funding".

The report suggests that the current round of teaching quality assessments should be completed but it argues that the future depends upon "the development of common standards, specified and verified through a strengthened external examiner system, supported by a lighter approach to quality assessment". Dearing wants institutions to impose a standards and quality framework upon themselves which would obviate the need for the current lengthy inspection process. The purpose is to create a model of higher education, based upon credit accumulation and transfer, which will maximise opportunities for lifelong learning.

The committee evidently believes that this is the final opportunity for the universities to retain control of their own arrangements for standards and quality. If the QAA fails to deliver the goods the implication is that it will be replaced by a more explicitly managed state body. Thus the Dearing committee can claim that it has done its best to sustain the tradition of university autonomy.

At first glance it seems that university autonomy has been diluted in Dearing's hands. Responsibility for standards and quality has to be exercised within the committee's guidelines. Thus the QAA, aided by a small cadre of external examiners (nominated by the universities but appointed by the QAA), becomes the real guardian of autonomy. It is pertinent to ask precisely how much discretion this will leave individual institutions, and what autonomy individual tutors can exercise. Of course, after being exposed to the mandatory period of teacher training that Dearing proposes there may not be too many lecturers left.

The most remarkable omission in the Dearing discussion of quality and standards is its failure to incorporate any funding dimensions except the very general threat that any institution which neglects to establish a code of practice incorporating the committee's recommendations should not receive public funding. Will all institutions which meet threshold standards receive the same amount of funding for each student? Or should institutions which sustain much higher levels of quality be given the incentive of receiving additional funding? Unless institutions have incentives to escape mediocrity then the support for enhanced student choice becomes more problematic.

Moreover, what penalties, if any, will those who fail to meet threshold standards incur? Evidently, this was a very sensitive issue for the committee, which seems to believe that the implementation of its recommendations will restore trust between the universities and the state, thus obviating the need to threaten financial penalties. The state is likely to welcome better relations between itself and the universities but surely even a Labour government will realise that it needs financial leverage?

The Dearing committee explicitly rejected the market solution which operates in Japan and the United States while embracing the corporatist practice of Australia. This approach seems oddly inconsistent with its decision that students should contribute a percentage of their tuition costs. It seems reasonable to assume that students (or their parents) will become more discerning in their choices of institutions and courses, especially if Dearing's input is merely the thin end of the wedge. Quality control will be increasingly determined in the market by students.

We have to ask ourselves whether the QAA really does represent the Last Chance Saloon. Or is it merely a desperate attempt to concoct a mechanism which would seemingly placate the powerful vested interests in higher education?

This attempt is doomed to failure: it has neither fully appreciated the demands of the state nor provided suitable procedures which will respond positively to increasing market pressures. But it does place an undue faith in an outdated corporatism which is distrustful of professional integrity while denying individual eccentricity.


Ted Tapper is reader in politics at theUniversity of Sussex. B. G. Salter isprofessor of health services research at the University of East Anglia.

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