New-style degrees get convert

March 28, 1997

The first signs of a consensus over abolishing traditional degree classifications may have been seen at last week's quality conference staged by Goldsmiths College.

Calls for a review and possible overhaul of the system have mostly come so far from the Higher Education Quality Council, with little enthusiasm from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the other half of the English quality duo.

But speaking only a few days before the new Single Quality Agency comes formally into being, David Watson, director of Brighton University and former chair of HEFCE's Quality Committee, said he was a "late and reluctant convert" to the view that the traditional classifications were no longer viable.

Professor Watson, a member of the Dearing inquiry into higher education, said that while the present system of marking, moderation, external examination and university procedures was reasonably secure, the sector had still to reassure the public about standards.

His remarks echoed Sir Ron Dearing, who told the conference that standards would be of at least equal importance with funding in the deliberations of his committee.

This also reflected the priorities set for the new agency by its chairman, Christopher Kenyon, and by the government.

Mr Kenyon recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Gillian Shephard, saying: "I share your view that the issue of standards is of particular importance. It is certainly my aim that the assurance of standards should be at the heart of the new agency's activities".

Mr Kenyon hopes to see the HEQC's functions transferred to the new agency from the start of May - with HEQC's secretariat staff seconded from next week - and full responsibility for quality assessment transferred from the English and Welsh funding councils by August 1 at the latest.

* John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, has mounted a robust defence of SHEFC's "wait-and-see" approach to the single quality agency.

While the English and Welsh funding councils will be part of the agency from its inception, SHEFC insists that it cannot contract with the new body until it is satisfied that it can meet all of SHEFC's quality assessment requirements.

Speaking at the Goldsmith's conference, Professor Sizer stressed that quality assessment had developed differently, both conceptually and practically, north and south of the border.

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