Vice-chancellors take note, quality assurance has come of age - it is no longer a beast of burden, says Peter Williams
Whatever was on the minds of vice-chancellors when they met for their residential conference recently, it didn't seem to be quality assurance. Whether this was because they had more pressing matters to consider, were excited at the prospect of seeing Education Secretary Ruth Kelly in person, or were simply happy with the current state of affairs, was not clear. Whatever the explanation, the absence of any reference to quality assurance in their discussions represented an interesting change from five years ago.
The recent report on institutional audits conducted by Dame Sandra Burslem may provide the explanation. It found the Quality Assurance Agency's English institutional audits to be a cost-effective way of providing an appropriate level of external assurance in higher education. By dropping subject reviews, the QAA has considerably reduced both the burden and cost of external scrutiny. Given that the institutional audit method that the QAA has used since 2002 was an uneasy compromise between those who demanded the retention of some form of subject review and those who wanted more radical change, this is a gratifying outcome.
For some of us, though, the most important aspect of the Burslem report is the green light it has given to the further evolution of audit. As readers of the QAA's draft new strategic plan will know, we see our work being concerned in broadly equal measure with institutions' public accountability for standards and quality, and the development of their own capacity and effectiveness. By allowing us to remove the complex and laborious "discipline audit trails", and encouraging us to increase the "enhancement" element of audit, the Burslem recommendations mean that we can now plan a better audit model for the next six years. This will continue to focus on institutions' management of their own academic standards and quality but will offer them a greater chance to use audit as a resource to help them meet future challenges. Students paying serious fees will expect a hallmarked degree. They will also expect seriously good quality for their fees.
Greater effectiveness, better value for money, less burden. These will be criteria for the success of the new institutional audit in England. But the overriding requirement will be that the QAA's review processes tell it like it is. Our reports must give useful information to their readers, and these will increasingly include potential students and employers, not just the quality assurance professionals. Together with the new Teaching Quality Information, and the outcomes of the National Student Survey, our new audit reports will help those seeking the services of higher education to make their choices with reliable and accessible data. How to achieve high standards, good quality, reliable information and effective quality assurance will also be one of the messages the UK offers to its European Union partners in Manchester in October at a major conference on higher education.
If we believe in the UK that we are on the right track, then it is right that we should share our experiences and highlight our successes. In all parts of the UK, we may have less to do than many countries to ensure that we are "compliant" with the new European standards and guidelines for quality assurance (ESG), adopted by education ministers at their May meeting in Bergen. But complacency about this would be dangerous, and there still remains an obligation to examine our own practices. The ESG's profile has not been high: how many of the vice-chancellors gathered in London had read them and knew that all higher education institutions in the UK were expected to conform to them? Even to those who remain unconvinced of the inherent value of quality assurance, it must now be clear that the international world of higher education has stronger and stronger expectations that all serious providers will have formal mechanisms in place to guarantee and improve their programmes and qualifications. The UK will ignore this message at its peril.
The QAA will not forget that quality assurance is a support, not a substitute, for the professional engagement of academics with the standards and quality of what they are offering to their students. All the reports and international conferences on quality assurance will be worth nothing if they do not help to embed a culture of quality among the grass roots of higher education; and that cannot simply be imposed from outside.
Peter Williams is chief executive of the QAA and the newly elected president of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education.