Misled by example

August 31, 2001

Simeon Underwood urges a more thoughtful approach to the consultation on quality assurance.

Immediately after announcing his resignation last week, John Randall engaged in a one-man media offensive against the proposals out for consultation on future national arrangements for quality assurance.

Some may think it churlish of him to denounce the plans of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the universities quite so wholeheartedly while continuing to draw a salary from them. Others will find some of his remarks insensitive, given the future problems they create for his own agency and his erstwhile colleagues. Others who have read the comment in the Times leader that this was "a relatively rare example of a wholly principled resignation in public life" may have wondered that it took Randall four weeks from the publication of the consultation document (which presumably he saw and commented on in draft) to assert those principles.

But what is perhaps most disappointing is the way in which he has misrepresented the document.

"Going from 100 per cent to 10 per cent is a jump too far," he says repeatedly, in the context of the proposed reduction in reviews of academic departments. Indeed so. But this is not what is proposed. The 10 per cent figure is for detailed review of departments as an integral part of the reviews of institutions; the institutional reviews will then lead to further follow-up reviews of departments or particular topics within an institution. Subject-level follow-up will be focused where it is needed, rather than the present system whereby every department in every institution is dragged through a wholly ritualised review process in order to complete an increasingly discredited data set.

In the same vein, much of the media comment, including Randall's own, focuses on the effects of the proposals in terms of public information. We are told that the proposals will mean the end of a "neutral analysis" of teaching quality and that it will be "impossible to compile anything like a reliable league table again". But any honest observer who has seen subject review at close quarters knows that the actual scores it generates are potentially very unreliable for such purposes. The graded profile of six different aspects of provision has always been vulnerable to abuse. "Numbers," I once heard Randall say, "have caused us no end of trouble because they have a habit of being added up."

Instead, the consultation document proposes that institutions will publish standardised performance data. Contrary to the impression given by Randall, the proposals were designed with public information needs in mind. Certainly, it will be difficult for the group charged to work out the details not to come up with something that will be more reliable and helpful to potential students than the current subject review scores.

Also, an end of comprehensive subject review should not necessarily mean an end of league tables: the United States, for example, has an abundance of information tables, notwithstanding a quality assurance process based simply on ten-yearly institutional review (plus separate reviews by professional bodies).

There is also a grand irony here. The new-style academic review that the Quality Assurance Agency has been developing under Randall's direction over the past two years already makes it impossible for the newspapers to continue to construct league tables on their current basis. The task of comparing the old and new grading systems has deliberately been made problematic. Also, a close analysis of the new grading criteria statements and the early results from Scotland show that almost inevitably something like 90 per cent of the departments reviewed under it will get the same result ("confidence" in standards and "commendable" for all three aspects of teaching quality): such uniformity in results is hardly the stuff of public information and choice.

Randall's intervention in the current consultation is a challenge to us all not to follow his example. Institutions need to treat the exercise with dignity and thoughtfulness, and to view it in the round. Petulance or special pleading will simply play into the hands of the newspaper leader writers and any sceptics within the Department for Education and Skills.

In the meantime, for those working in higher education institutions (though not those in higher education colleges), the coming year should largely be free of the turbulence to which we have become accustomed. Moreover, the absence of QAA teams for a year may now mean that we can get on with some real quality assurance - perhaps even, to use a phrase conspicuously absent from Randall's own opinion pieces, quality enhancement.

Simeon Underwood is assistant registrar at the London School of Economics. He is writing in a personal capacity. These comments are based on his experience of quality assurance in a wide range of institutions.

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