MPs call for 'toothless' watchdog to be put down

QAA defends its reputation as select committee openly doubts its influence, writes Rebecca Attwood

March 12, 2009

The watchdog for university quality has responded to MPs' accusations that it is toothless and that its time is up.

This week, Peter Williams, head of the Quality Assurance Agency, was called before a cross-party committee of MPs, which claimed that universities were giving him "the runaround", that the QAA had "no teeth", and that it was time for a replacement.

Mr Williams defended standards in universities and called higher education in England "a success story".

But he also said that there were some areas that probably required "more systematic investigation".

"There are two or three areas I think we ought to be looking at probably, but we wait to see the full outcome of our review," he told the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee.

The QAA later confirmed that it will shortly publish a series of reports on student workloads and contact hours, international students' language requirements and recruitment, external examiners and assessment practices, after concerns were raised in the media about standards in universities. A final report will be published later this year.

At the evidence session, Phil Willis MP, IUSS chairman, said his committee had heard "significant" evidence that the QAA was "not doing its job about ensuring quality at all", and that Mr Williams had "mainly presided over a process-led organisation".

He told Mr Williams, who retires this autumn: "You have no teeth, you don't look at standards. Is it time not only for you to move on to a new job, but in fact to have a new agency altogether?"

Mr Williams said the majority of concerns the QAA had received were personal complaints or grievances, sometimes involving individuals who had been dismissed or had been to an employment tribunal.

"It is sometimes quite difficult to discover whether the personal case is masking a systemic problem or is just a one-off administrative failure," he said. "That's where we need to do more work on individual cases, some of which remain open ...

"When we looked at the media stories, what we found is there are two or three stories that get repeated time and time again. The whole thing adds up to something that (seems) much bigger than it is."

But Mr Willis remained bemused as to how a system under which organisations set their own standards and judged them for themselves could be relied upon.

"It is like Manchester United saying we (want) to win the football league so we'll only play Accrington Stanley," he said.

Mr Williams said he thought the external examiner system was "good" but "creaking". "I think the claims for it to provide the kind of nationwide or whole cross-sector guarantee of consistency of standards cannot be sustained and we've said that in a number of places," he said.

He insisted that the QAA was not toothless. "A lot of our power is the power of influence and fear," he said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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