DEARING has stopped short of recommending a national curriculum for higher education programmes - but only just. A compulsory code of practice and "threshold" minimum standards for degree programmes should be linked directly to public funding, his committee says.
The new commitment to standards should be underpinned by a national framework of qualifications, overseen by the new Quality Assurance Agency. The QAA should have an impressive array of responsibilities and powers, including a brief allowing it to recommend withdrawal of funding if minimum standards are not met.
But the QAA would have only three years to realise the vision before the "pressures for increased and direct intervention from outside the higher education system intensify", the report warns.
It is not enough to rely on informal ranking of institutions. "We conclude that UK awards at all levels, and especially the first degree, must be nationally recognised and widely understood." Minimum standards must be developed "now", by academics in formal groupings, established by the QAA.
This information should be used by a pool of licensed external examiners, who will validate programmes under the QAA. A strengthened external examiner system, supported by a "lighter approach" to quality assessment, should replace the present teaching quality assessment system.
The Government "should endorse immediately" Dearing's national framework for higher education qualifications (Rec. 22). The present structure and nomenclature of awards are at best unhelpful, at worst, misleading.
The proposed framework, based closely on the Scottish model, describes higher education qualifications in an eight-point scale. Underpinned by an inter-institutional credit accumulation and transfer system, the framework may be extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland within five years.
National vocational qualifications at the higher levels four and five, the report said, had potential to integrate with provision in higher education. Colleges and universities should also have "an enlarged role" in delivering and assessing NVQs. But the previous government's proposals to develop new General NVQs to levels above their current A-level standard, "advanced" level, would not be helpful, the committee concludes.
The QAA should become the single agency to oversee the changes. This is "a somewhat different agenda for the agency" from what was originally conceived, but it should embrace it "vigorously", the committee says. The QAA's remit (Rec 24) would include: controlling quality assurance and public information, verifying standards, and maintaining the qualifications framework.
The arrangements for all of these will be encompassed in the compulsory, formal code of practice, "which every institution should be required formally to adopt by 2001/02, as a condition of public funding", the report says. The QAA would also have a key role in allocating degree-awarding powers - and their removal - in a close partnership with HEFCE.
The QAA would play a key role in a clampdown on franchising activity (Rec 23), setting criteria for franchise arrangements that will be compulsory by 2001, and banning multiple franchise partnerships.