Need for standards cannot be ignored

June 27, 1997

Consumers, customers, stakeholders. Whatever word is used - and they are all pretty unattractive to the providers of higher education - power is moving their way. Now that a third of the population expects to go to higher education and the Government expects many of the rest to use its services from time to time during their lives, the days when the academic community could pick and choose its clients are long gone.

And as people have to invest more in acquiring the qualifications higher education offers, they get fussier about the quality of service and the validity of credentials. As graduates become a less rare commodity, employers want to know more about the degree their applicant is offering: what do they know and what can they do?

In short, higher education is now a large-scale service industry and customer care is moving up the agenda fast, however much such managerial expressions may offend those committed to "traditional academic values". If those values are to be defended - and they must be - the "customers" will have to be persuaded that the service they are offered is worth having and worth investing in.

This change is part of a trend that has been apparent for some time. The former prime minister, John Major, may not have got far with his citizens' and students' charters, but he caught a growing mood. The evidence of lawyers eagerly building up their education practices tells us that students and staff are becoming more litigious. Nor has the academic community failed to notice. Surveys of THES readers show growing demand for more information about teaching techniques and professional development. For all the time and expense it has entailed, the programme of institutional audits and teaching assessments has led to a tightening-up of practice in universities and colleges. Now the funding councils are looking for ways of building in incentives to encourage teaching and counterbalance the distorting effect of the research assessment exercise on academic priorities in the last decade.

In response to this concern, The THES this week launches a new section, The Good Teaching Guide. This will appear three times a year, in June, October and February and will be a companion to our three times yearly Research Opportunities section.

Our aim is to report developments in higher education teaching, to highlight star performers (who may or may not also be star researchers), to review books designed to help people with their teaching and above all to provide space where issues concerning teaching in higher education can be debated.

Should there, for example, be a requirement that academics be trained to teach? It is possible the Dearing committee will include this among its many recommendations. It is also evident from the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency's survey (page iv) that many people do not fancy the idea.

Is such reluctance justified - and is resistance sustainable in today's consumerist climate? Would conceding the need for training be a worthwhile quid pro quo for a pay review body, or for a higher education teaching council for example? If it is to be done, how is it best done? Who will accredit whom, to do what?

As with this, some of what we report may not be welcome. Students' views are not always complimentary. It is not, for example, impressive that surveys conducted among students on the quality of their lectures are not always taken seriously. But welcome or not, it is not safe any more to ignore such feedback.

As The Good Teaching Guide develops, news, views and contributions will be welcome, along with nominations for star performers, useful books and good courses. For a while at least, until we catch up with books already in print, we will not be restricting coverage to those newly published (see page ii).

It is not only on teaching quality, however, that outside pressures are building up. Publication this week of the graduate standards report from the Higher Education Quality Council puts an even hotter topic on the table - the matter of degree standards. This is an even more central subject, which the Dearing committee will be addressing. The matter of standards goes to the heart of university autonomy. Any changes are likely to be much debated, with intervention much resisted. New arrangements may in the end be imposed.

The case for resistance will be reinforced by the experience many universities have had with professional bodies. Outside control of curricula and standards is not new and professional bodies have often been perceived in higher education as forces of endarkenment; overly wedded to traditional curricula and ways of doing things ("It never did me any harm"); overly keen on protecting a professional patch from too large an influx of newcomers who might spoil the market (lawyers were until recently charged with such restrictive practices); and overly keen on setting standards in terms of input measures rather than embarking on the much more complex business of assessing output no matter what a person's starting point (a habit particularly entrenched among engineers).

Foot-dragging is unlikely to provide an escape this time. Students, parents and employers will all demand greater clarity about what a qualification at a given level means. This is going to become more important as the likes of Kall Kwik jump after British Aerospace and McDonald's into the "university" business.

If Dearing is going to recommend easing up on the use of the title "university" so that it no longer attaches only to institutions accredited to award the full range of taught and research qualifications, clear benchmarks that can be checked across publicly financed and private institutions will be essential.

Furthermore, there is a fat prize to be won here. Given all the hard work and aggravation, and the false starts and time-wasting that have attended the introduction of quality assurance arrangements into British higher education, it is hard to recognise that we now have, for our pains, possibly the most transparent and effectively regulated system of higher education in the world. That is a valuable selling point. If we can now go the next step and put our qualifications on some clear basis, the doubts which have, for example, grown up around some institutions' overseas marketing activities will be allayed. The potential for the United Kingdom as purveyor of higher education to the world will be more readily developed.

It will not be easy. It may, for example, involve not only establishment of threshold standards which all who wish to stay in business must meet, but also formal recognition for better-than-average provision. Those so rated might, for example, qualify for permission to charge a higher fee. This would be horribly unpopular with those who failed the higher hurdle.

No doubt if there were to be such a category, it would have to be externally assessed: it would not be acceptable for great and grand universities simply to assert their superiority and refuse to cooperate with such evaluations - something some seem tempted to do with the second round of institutional audits now due. But even with external assessment, the jealousies surrounding the research assessment exercise suggest acceptance of a star grading would be hard to achieve.

Despite the difficulties, whatever is to be done must not be imposed on higher education by a government preoccupied with vocational training and uninterested in academic study. However reluctant the academic community is to concede ancient privileges and pool its sovereignty (have we heard this somewhere before?), little higher educationism is no more likely to be successful than the Tory right wing's little Englandism. Times have changed. Service providers who ignore the demands of their clients go bust.

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