Nurturing a fragile plant

January 5, 1996

The quality planning group needs to grow some trust, says Lewis Elton.

The Higher Education Funding Councils and the higher education sector have set up a joint planning group which will meet for the first time next week to create a new quality and standards agency. This constitutes real progress since last spring when the Secretary of State asked the parties concerned to get together and see whether such a unified scheme could be achieved.

The following months saw first what looked like an almost total victory for HEFCE, which was turned round at the last moment into something that began to look more like a total victory for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, followed by behind-the-scenes discussion between the two parties, facilitated by the Department for Education and Employment, to achieve an outcome acceptable to both parties.

Total victory by one of the parties is not desirable. A victory by the funding council would seriously diminish academic independence, while a victory by the universities might allow them to return to bad traditional practices.

What is needed is the creation of an institutional culture of self-assessment and self-improvement, which cannot be imposed externally and yet is unlikely to grow without external pressure and encouragement. For it to happen requires a growth of mutual trust which will not be easy to achieve. We have here a classic conflict situation that normally can be resolved only through a lengthy process of conflict resolution, in which mutual trust is gradually built up through concessions on both sides. The eventual outcome is that quality should be assured through institutional and departmental self-evaluation, with external verification that the self-evaluation is effective. Such a system relies primarily on mutually "guarded" trust.

This gradual build-up of trust requires quality assessment to be a developing concept, in which the emphasis moves from quality assurance to quality enhancement, and where responsibility and power are increasingly held within individual universities. However, since universities are independent bodies, it will not be possible for all to move at the same pace. Quality assessment will have to adapt differently to different rates of development, and this adaptation must arise from a mutual agreement between the new agency and each university. In order to increase mutual trust, a university must demonstrate through a number of qualitative indicators that increasing trust is justified and the agency must similarly indicate that its trust is being increased.

While the main purpose of the qualitative indicators is to allow the mutual trust between the agency and each university to ratchet up, they must also be chosen so as to encourage good practice. For universities I suggest the following: open self-assessment, which includes external subject and pedagogic assessors and is linked to an effective internal system of quality assurance and control; a code of good practice with evidence that it is used and, if necessary, enforced; an effective system of human resource management and professional development; a self-critical and open academic culture.

For the agency I suggest: a move towards the abolition of any form of grades above threshold; provision of resources for universities to engage in the continuing professional development of all their staff; the provision of a substantial national research and development fund for teaching and learning, to put teaching more nearly on a par with research; a move from the monitoring of outcomes to the verification of processes.

The indicators listed are very much in line with the idea of partnership as proposed by the Welsh Funding Council, which also proposed differentiation between institutions which "move towards maturity and commitment at different rates" and the abolition of grading, which cannot be reconciled with genuine partnership. The proposed changes by the two sides must be closely integrated, so as to build on each other and adequate time must be allowed. Trust is a fragile plant but the interweaving of the changes proposed is designed to minimise these risks, which are very much less than the risks to quality that arise from a decline of trust and the associated consequences.

The fact that the new agency is to be concerned also with standards is wholly to be welcomed. This will rightly circumscribe the present total freedom of each institution to declare its own mission, the necessity for which has already been recognised by the Welsh council with its concept of "fitness for stated purpose"; if this is accepted, then the stated purpose will have to be negotiated between each institution and the agency. In this way, constructive diversity and high standards will be encouraged, in contrast with the present procedures which encourage convergence and do not deal with standards.

Finally, quality assurance and standards meet in the area of minimum teaching standards. Nothing in the quality assessment exercise so far seems to have seriously challenged the lack of quality control in universities, which has resulted in most students receiving a very uneven learning experience, stretching from excellent to unsatisfactory, almost certainly the biggest criticism that students have of their experience.

The fact that it was possible for departments to be graded excellent when - to quote from two reports at random - in one only two-fifths of the classes observed were graded as such and in another "the quality in some sessions of the handout material was poor or the opportunity to give students an appropriate handout was missed", indicates that lack of quality control was not a major concern of the assessors. It should be, and credible internal procedures to deal with threshold competence, ie to identify those below such threshold and provide remedies, must form an essential aspect of credible self-assessment.

The process which I have suggested will require time and patience, but any attempt at short cuts is likely to decrease trust that may have been built up.

Lewis Elton is professor of higher education at University College, London.

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