Olga Wojtas reports on Scotland's trailblazing quality-assurance system
It is a concept that might send a chill down the spines of some lecturers: the student quality inspector. But this, in the land of the brave, is exactly what lies at the centre of a new lighter-touch inspection system where students - alongside academics - are judging academic standards and the quality of teaching they receive at their university. Moreover, academics, administrators, ministers and students alike have cautiously welcomed Scotland's revitalised quality assurance system, as it enters its third year.
And their conclusions could reverberate around the world: the idea of making student feedback a central tenet in ensuring academic quality is being monitored closely by university sectors south of the border, across Europe and as far away as the US. One day, the Scottish system could be exported across the globe.
Meanwhile, the scheme seems to be paying dividends both for academics, who have seen their regulatory burden eased, and for students, who have seen the quality of their education and the university environment improve.
The quality enhancement system, launched in autumn 2003, involves students in internal and external quality reviews, and ensures that student views feed into decision-making. At the heart of Scotland's inspection system is a review, carried out every four years by a team including a reviewer drawn from the student community and staff from other institutions.
Academics, who had frequently complained about the burden of quality assurance, no longer have to submit to external reviews of each subject.
Instead, institutions are deemed mature enough to monitor themselves on a subject level, with a single external "enhancement-led" institutional review (Elir) once every four years.
Bill Harvey, deputy director for teaching and learning at the Scottish Funding Council, said: "Anything you do for a week every four years is not a guarantee of quality. Real quality is about being accountable daily to the students."
David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland, concurs: "The old system encouraged you to put your feet up for the next three years after you've been through the inspection.
"You can have quality assurance where quality isn't embedded into the culture - people adopt a compliance approach and just do what's necessary.
I think Elir has achieved a nice balance of not exerting unreasonable pressure but encouraging real aspiration."
The new system was agreed through a partnership between the higher education sector, the National Union of Students Scotland, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Quality Assurance Agency.
The fruits of this partnership are already emerging. The QAA has published its first booklets from a national programme of "enhancement themes", aimed at developing and sharing good practice.
The booklet on assessment recommends, for example, that students need feedback more quickly than through conventional exam marking, and suggests fellow students comment on assignments, and tutors offer instant feedback during teaching sessions.
The booklet on responding to student needs gives a broad range of advice, including appointing a "first-year champion" backed by senior management, including students' families in induction, and making academic expectations explicit.
The moves have been strongly supported by Scottish Executive ministers, who left the organisations free to develop the system. Many Scots believe the English climate is more one of micromanagement, which does not allow time to build consensus.
Dr Harvey said: "This is not something being done to the sector but something being done with the sector, the student lobby and the QAA."
Scottish higher education is small enough that all the key players can meet in one room, but Norman Sharp, director of QAA Scotland, believes there is more to it than that. "There is a serious commitment to making our students' experience as good as it can be. How can we help? That's what drove it. The process is a means to an end, not an end in itself."
Incentives on offer
Melanie Ward, president of NUS Scotland, said enhancement was a great improvement for Scottish students. "It sends out a really strong signal to students that their opinions matter," she said.
Crucial to the quality enhancement agenda was Student Participation in Quality Scotland (Sparqs). It is managed by NUS Scotland and paid for by the funding councils. A key part of its work is to train student representatives. The initiative caught the attention of the federation of European student unions (ESIB).
Through Sparqs, students have received incentives for taking part in Elir - an approach that Vincent Lasseaux, sabbatical officer for representation for Napier University students' association, firmly supports.
This year, representatives will receive a miniature of whisky for their trouble. And more usefully, some faculties cover travel expenses and give students time off, while the students' association writes references for those who do particularly good work.
But the biggest incentive for students to get involved is the academic credit for a module jointly devised for course representatives by the university and students' association. "It covers things such as negotiating skills and how to be a good communicator," Mr Lasseaux said.
The module can enhance student employability, because it involves making written and oral presentations, reporting on meetings and carrying out background research.
But Lucy MacLeod, head of wider access development, stressed that the module was not simply personal development, but has a solid academic grounding. "We encourage them to reflect on what it means to represent, and tie it to issues such as citizenship."
But while students are being trained to play a full role, Ms Ward said academics had to get used to a big culture change.
"Some academics really welcome student involvement and others will have to learn to accept it. If they just give students a chance, they will find their input is constructive," she said.
Culture change will take time, Dr Harvey said. He believed it would take two Elir cycles before it was possible to say how well the system was working. "The feeling we had from the start is that you have to be patient."
But Mr Caldwell said he believed there was general acceptance of the central importance of the learner. "I think there was scepticism in some quarters. I think there was a little convincing to be done that this would really work. Because the training has been rigorous and high quality, the sceptics' fears have been allayed."
By this autumn, the new reports on Scottish institutions are expected on the Teaching Quality Information website at www.tqi.ac.uk.