Negative remarks about degrees earned ex-standards chief a dressing-down

Former QAA head says row is leading to a significant shift in quality assurance. Rebecca Attwood reports

November 2, 2009

The former head of the university standards watchdog has revealed that he was called into a government department and admonished for describing the system for classifying degrees as “rotten”.

In a lecture at the Institute of Education, University of London, on 3 November, Peter Williams, the former chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, will reflect on the recent row over standards in universities and describe the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills’ angry reaction to his comments.

In June 2008, Mr Williams told the BBC that the degree-classification system was “arbitrary and unreliable”, and added that there was “a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they will get a degree”.

“DIUS called me in to intimate in no uncertain terms that negative comments about quality and standards were not welcome, as they would damage overseas recruitment,” Mr Williams explains in a paper prepared ahead of his lecture.

At the time, his remarks were seized on by MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee, who launched an inquiry into higher education standards. It concluded in August that the systems in place to safeguard standards are inadequate.

In his lecture, The Result of Intelligent Effort? Two Decades in the Quality Assurance of Higher Education, Mr Williams will say that a significant shift in quality assurance is taking place as a result of the standards row and the “panic” that ensued.

His paper claims that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, “apparently in response to increasing pressure from ministers”, has taken steps to “heighten its influence” over England’s quality assurance arrangements.

Politicians, Mr Williams predicts, will try to push the pendulum away from today’s “light-touch” regime towards greater accountability.

He says that if this is done sensitively, it might bring benefits. However, he warns that if anything resembling the select committee’s idea of quality assurance is introduced, it “would be seriously damaging to both quality and standards”, as well as stifling innovation and creativity.

Mr Williams accuses MPs on the select committee of “wilfully misunderstanding” higher education and ignoring the evidence set before them.

“Their vision of quality assurance and the QAA goes no further than a crudely disciplinary police force,” he writes, arguing that in their eyes, “higher education must always be presumed guilty until proved innocent”.

“If the [IUSS] report teaches us anything, it is perhaps to beware a committee faced with its own demise and politicians faced with an imminent election.”

Mr Williams makes the case for a “scholar-led” vision of quality assurance, “one that believes in the primacy of the academy in higher education, but one that also accepts wider obligations, such as the need for public information and reassurance and the safeguarding of the standards of nationally recognised qualifications”.

He argues that quality assurance has an “honourable and necessary” intention: “to try to ensure that what is offered and provided to students has at the very least a clear purpose, a carefully designed structure and a well-managed organisation, and is carried out in a way that makes best use of everybody’s time and money.”

This, he claims, should not be a matter of “policing”, but “an honest mirror to serious practitioners, a critical friendship to those who want to do their best”.

However, he acknowledges that his vision of quality assurance is one that “isn’t… particularly popular at present”.

He lays part of the blame for this at the door of academics, who he says are reluctant to engage seriously with quality assurance, “other than to criticise, condemn or comply”.

“There are few phrases in higher education that are likely to create so generally hostile a response as ‘I’m from the QAA’. It’s a killer at parties,” he writes.

This dislike is a hangover from the more burdensome forms of quality assurance used in the 1990s, when universities found themselves “under constant surveillance”, Mr Williams suggests.

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