'Light touch' fails to cut red tape

August 16, 2002

The new "light-touch" quality assurance regime is unlikely to reduce the bureaucratic burden on universities, according to a former head of a quality watchdog.

Roger Brown, who was chief executive of the now defunct Higher Education Quality Council, said that the new audit regime, combined with demands from funding bosses for unprecedented amounts of information and documentation, will keep the accountability burden heavy.

Dr Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, was echoing serious reservations revealed in a Quality Assurance Agency's consultation about information requirements outlined in Sir Ron Cooke's report on information on quality and standards.

Dr Brown said: "It is doubtful whether the quality regime, when taken together with the Cooke report on information and the working through of the post-Dearing quality infrastructure, will produce any significant reduction in the overall burden on institutions, although it should provide better value for money."

Concern focuses on the Cooke requirements, demanded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The new QAA regime abolishes universal subject-by-subject quality assessment, introducing a hands-off six-yearly audit of institutions' own internal assurance systems. But the QAA will also be asked to audit and verify a whole range of information.

The Cooke report asks for data on pass rates, drop-out, degree classifications and student employability and asks universities to publish summaries of all external examiners' reports - up to 500 separate reports in some cases. It also requires institutions to publish summaries of internal quality-assurance reviews, student satisfaction surveys for each course and an overall student verdict on each institution.

A QAA consultation found that while the system, rolled out from next academic year, was generally acceptable, "over half the respondents to the consultation raised concerns regarding the Cooke information set".

The Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force, which last month examined the burden of accountability carried by universities, says: "The Cooke report is a good example (of bad policy-making). Although the report mentions there will be some additional costs to higher education institutions, it doesn't spell out where these costs will fall or, indeed, the expected benefits."

For example, says the task force report: "One small institution told us they would have about 170 external examiners' reports to post on their website. A larger institution told us, 'The enormity (sic) of the quantitative and qualitative information requirements in general is depressing.'" Student satisfaction surveys cost about £150,000 a year, and for some universities, "this will be a new burden and an additional cost".

The Better Regulation Task Force wants a proper evaluation of the impact of the Cooke demands within two years.

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