Long-awaited regime threatens to cramp change

October 29, 1999

To judge from the long delay, decisions on the control of degree-awarding powers in universities and colleges have not been easy to make. A pity, then, that after so long the outcome should be so unsatisfactory.

Under the new regime it will be difficult to get accredited to award degrees and very hard to achieve university status. Aspirants will need to be ultra conformist to satisfy assessors drawn from existing institutions. The Quality Assurance Agency will have enormous powers to control growth in publicly subsidised higher education when diversity and innovation are needed to meet the challenge from private and corporate competitors. American accrediting agencies with their more relaxed arrangements will be offered a fine opportunity to expand into the British higher education market.

Such fierce guarding of the gate is needed because, in the face of the massed ranks of institutions already inside the citadel, ministers have apparently backed away from more radical proposals that would allow degree-awarding powers to be taken away if badly used. This is perhaps not surprising. Not all existing universities could be confident of remaining unchallenged on all levels of degrees. Furthermore, such a change would involve primary legislation, negotiations with the Privy Council and perhaps a long guerrilla war in a House of Lords where removing hereditary peers could strengthen the universities' voice. It would also involve giving powers to recommend suspension or removal of degree-awarding powers to an agency, the QAA, which is not yet sufficiently trusted and accepted across the whole of higher education.

If poor standards can be punished, highly restrictive control of entry is not so necessary. What we have now promises to be a regime where new developments are discouraged but slackness is hard to remedy. It is to be hoped that ministers will keep these decisions under review and be prepared to reconsider.

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