Odious comparisons

August 7, 1998

Roger Brown argues that pursuit of comparability in an external quality framework will lead to failure

THE continuing difficulties in establishing an external quality framework for higher education will surprise no one who has been following this debate since September 1993, when the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals first committed itself to a single set of quality arrangements.

The origins go back to the abolition of the binary line in autumn 1990. Instead of deciding what was the best balance between internal and external quality assurance, the white paper, Higher Education: A New Framework, simply rolled forward the two sectors' previous arrangements.

Assessment would continue as a modified version of what Her Majesty's Inspectorate had been seeking to do. The work of the Academic Audit Unit would continue.

Institutions accepted the government's proposals at first. But before long they complained about the load and called for a single agency. No proper analysis or evidence about the burden of the audit processes were ever provided, neither were any serious efforts made to coordinate the two processes more effectively, nor was any proper thought given to the potential implications of a single body.

Bodies representing the institutions saw quality assurance more in terms of a burden to be ameliorated than a function to be excelled at. Nevertheless the then secretary of state asked Graeme Davies to review the matter and make proposals. The sector's rejection of these led to the setting-up of the joint planning group in early 1996.

The group contained the leaders of higher education, including the chief executives of the funding councils, the chairmen of the main representative bodies and departmental assessors. Its report in December 1996 prepared the way for the creation of a single agency, but nearly every other major issue was left unresolved. In the meantime public, and ministerial, interest had shifted towards standards, a theme that was reinforced by the Dearing committee on the future of higher education.

Dearing's report a year ago confirmed the JPG in setting up a new agency but in every other respect rendered the JPG's work obsolete. It rightly emphasised the collective responsibility of the academic community, the need to shift the focus of external quality assurance on to standards and doubts about the continuing utility of teaching quality assessment, but it could not bring itself to a clear recommendation that assessment should be brought to an end and the balance of external assurance shifted towards institutional review.

Thus was the stage set for the new quality agency. On the one hand, institutions had been led by their leaders to think that the new arrangements would lead to a reduction in the perceived burden of external regulation. On the other hand, ministers continued and continue to emphasise value for money and information to guide students and employers.

How can these two sets of concerns be reconciled? The key to the puzzle is comparability. The former Higher Education Quality Council's work on academic standards - the graduate standards programme - demonstrated conclusively that any significant degree of comparability in institutional programmes or awards was a chimera in the system we now have.

This was a result of the government's own decisions to expand and liberalise the system. Nevertheless, as long as there is a requirement for comparability there can never be that selectivity that is the key to a slimmed-down, but more focused and effective, external quality regime. Institutions have to be realistic about the requirements of quality assurance, and the representative bodies have to ensure that all their members participate in them. Recent public moves by a number of universities to opt out of core parts of the arrangements agreed by the CVCP do neither themselves nor the academic community as a whole any favours.

If they will not come back the CVCP's ability to speak for the sector will be further eroded. Much more seriously, we shall be facing a situation in which there can no longer be a single set of arrangements applying to all institutions. This is good news neither for the new quality agency nor for the sector. The only alternative to a collective sharing of responsibility is a statutory regime.

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute of Higher Education and former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council. 12JopinionTHE TIMES 7JAugust 7 1998 'Is it branding, standing or standards that matter? It depends on who you are trying to please'

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