Light touch to get hard edge

November 30, 2001

Ministers are insisting on measures to harden up the planned "light touch" quality assurance regime before they will give it their seal of approval, confidential briefing notes show.

The notes confirm that the sector "might find unwelcome some necessary features of the new approach".

Notes on a discussion between the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Education and Skills earlier this month show that the department is "broadly happy" with the planned regime, "subject to certain issues being resolved". It is understood that ministers want public guarantees of rigour to satisfy students, parents and employers who are concerned that universities should not become unaccountable.

The new regime will abolish universal teaching quality inspection at subject level in favour of a hands-off audit approach. A more formal approach to the external-examiner system will be key to winning ministerial approval. Student-satisfaction surveys will also be published.

The document says that Universities UK should take the lead in pressing for proper training and better pay for external examiners, and possibly their formal accreditation within a "college" of external examiners. And new "rules for selection and deployment which underpin the independence of the external from the examined institution" are needed. It also insists that externals must have had no involvement with the department they examine for at least five years, avoiding any conflict of interest.

The emphasis on external examiners was strengthened with the publication last Friday of Ron Cooke's consultative report on the information that universities will be expected to make public. Professor Cooke, vice-chancellor at York University, recommended that summaries of external examiners' reports should be published.

He recognised that "some in the higher education sector feel that any publication of reports could damage the relationship between higher education institutions and their examiners, reducing the inclination to be frank and honest", but he concluded that "the gain in openness outweighed the potential cost".

Another issue is the extent of subject-level review. Where Quality Assurance Agency audits show high levels of confidence in a university's assurance systems, only about 10 per cent of provision at the subject level will be inspected. Where there are concerns, up to 40 per cent may be inspected.

Ministers are understood to be concerned that 10 per cent is too low and universities fear that universal teaching quality assessment will be pushed in through the back door.

The QAA is preparing a "protocol" setting out the procedures between the QAA and institutions.

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