Lib Dems plan tough standards

June 13, 2003

Many honours degree courses could be forcibly downgraded to foundation degree status if they failed to meet rigorous inspection demands under Liberal Democrat plans for higher education.

Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis told The THES this week that his party would also ensure that university entry standards were raised through new entry exams, which he admitted could lead to fewer places.

He said: "Let's stop kidding ourselves that higher education is just an easy option. We need to make it fit for purpose and to instil the necessary rigour to properly equip students and to put the excellence back into our universities."

Mr Willis's comments came as the party gave The THES a preview of its higher education policy document Quality, Diversity and Choice , which will be published later this year. They follow last week's speech by party leader Charles Kennedy in which he renewed his party's commitment to abolishing upfront tuition fees, funded by increased tax for the wealthy.

Mr Willis said that the Liberal Democrats wanted to make higher education study more flexible by removing the funding distinction between full and part-time students and by encouraging students to dip in and out of programmes throughout their careers. But, at the same time, standards had to be raised, he said.

"There is a need to radically review current programmes and to be sure that they are genuinely three-year honours programmes," he said.

"We have to ask: do they have the necessary intellectual rigour to stretch students? If they do not, either the university must make sure that the appropriate demands on students are put into the programmes, or we will look on the courses as foundation programmes."

Mr Willis said the party had not yet decided about the mechanism for reviewing and downgrading programmes. But he suggested that an independent quality assurance inspectorate to replace the Quality Assurance Agency was a possibility.

This echoes the policy paper, which shows little enthusiasm in the party for the QAA, which is described as "unnecessarily bureaucratic" and "heavy-handed". The paper calls for a "critical friend", whose main task is observation, discussion and feedback to staff.

Mr Willis added that the new quality assurance body would play a role in raising university entry requirements through entry tests run by individual institutions, as the quality of entry to honours programmes was not as rigorous as it should be.

He said that while the party did not believe in cutting the number of university places, this "may well be a consequence" of its plans.

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