Minds hot and cross over quality

June 2, 1995

Sometimes a vigorous public disagreement can have a cathartic effect. Hopefully this will be the outcome of the somewhat fraught exchanges on the future of quality assurance which took place at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Warwick conference at Easter.

Tim Boswell's expressed disappointment that the "country's best minds" - this was a conference of institutional heads and senior funding council officers! - could not agree on a way forward appears to have concentrated those minds wonderfully, and the momentum towards a solution which is acceptable all round is now, hopefully, unstoppable.

The broad outlines of a concord to propose to the Secretary of State are now clear. We need to have one integrated quality assurance agency which has within its remit (at least) the responsibilities for audit and for assessment which currently lie with two distinct bodies. This agency should be UK-wide and should have a membership which reflects the dual line of accountability which it would have towards the higher education funding councils (with their statutory responsibilities) and towards the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the college principals (because institutions are ultimately responsible for the quality of the tuition and supervision which they provide). There could also be independent members and representatives of professional bodies, holding the balance between the two main stake holders.

The extent to which the principal focus of the work of the new agency should be "assessment" or "audit" led could be a matter for further debate; I think a subject-focussed approach is now here to stay - albeit in a form intended to provide detailed information to putative students and their advisers rather than to produce misleading league tables.

The really interesting questions relate to what other activities this agency might embrace. Franchised degrees, for example, should clearly be subject to exactly the same quality assurance mechanisms as degrees offered in the home institution; they do, after all, claim to be a directly comparable product.

And programmes not funded by the relevant funding council could surely also be dealt with in the same way by the new (jointly-owned) body, since the exercise is intended primarily to guarantee and report on the quality of provision, with the demonstration that value for money is obtained in respect of public funding being only one purpose where relevant.

Two points merit further discussion. Should responsibility for the enhancement of quality, for example through the diffusion of examples of best practice, lie with this joint agency, or with a descendant of the Higher Education Quality Council, or with institutions themselves? The last possibility, while desirable, would seem difficult to implement in practice.

Also, where would the locus be for the rapidly developing debate on the standards of British degrees at all levels? I've often wondered whether, when ministers established quality assurance mechanisms, they thought they were measuring standards: in reality, of course, they were not.

The crucial thing is to move rapidly to one agency to oversee the core activities of assessment and audit, to avoid the waste of ever-diminishing resources that is the inevitable consequence of having two separate and partly overlapping systems.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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