Our private concerns

August 12, 2005

The monopolistic and unaccountable QAA needs real competition, argues Geoffrey Alderman

The word "private" occurs only once in the review of the quality assurance framework, the first report of which was published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England last week. This singular occurrence is symptomatic of the blinkered vision that afflicts and impedes thinking about the future of higher education in this country and the effective assurance of its quality and standards.

The report of the review, which was chaired by Dame Sandra Burslem, lists a number of "other discussions" the group held. Among these there is the briefest of references to "quality assurance and private providers of higher education/institutions not in receipt of funding through the funding councils".

That this discussion took place at all was due not to any initiative by the group, but to an approach from the London campus of American InterContinental University (AIU-London). This is a private for-profit higher education institution and the only for-profit institution that subscribes to the Quality Assurance Agency, although it is not the QAA's only privately funded subscribing member. Among this group of five voluntary subscribers is Buckingham University and a number of specialist institutions. This group will expand as other privately funded entities obtain degree-awarding powers.

The relationship of this group to the QAA is and will remain distinct from that of the taxpayer-funded higher education institutions, which are obliged to subscribe to the agency as a condition of public funding. The privately funded group has exercised the choice to subscribe.

The review was a Hefce initiative, and it was to Hefce that the group reported. This fact alone should give grounds for concern. The QAA is a classic monopoly. The overwhelming majority of its "subscribers" are not really subscribers at all; they are reluctant participants in a one-party state, frogmarched to the hustings by the funding councils. The annual "subscribers meeting" is a polite gathering with an interesting agenda that steers clear of discussing basic issues such as: What is the QAA doing with my institution's money?, Is my institution getting value for money?, Can I vote someone off the board of directors? and so on.

This is a far cry from the situation in the US, where the regional higher education accrediting commissions are legally owned by the subscribing institutions, and in which executive members  voted on and off key committees in real elections.

This is not to say that the review group has not done a useful job. It has. But it does not seem to have considered the situation of the private sector until it received the submission from AIU-London last November. That submission summarised a number of concerns. The QAA needs to be made accountable to its subscribing institutions, not the British Government through the funding councils. It needs to be taught that it must consult its privately funded members on major policy initiatives. The audit methodology is cast entirely in a "public-sector" mode; all references to the "requirements" of the funding councils - for instance in relation to teaching quality information, which applies only to taxpayer-funded institutions - should be removed from the audit methodology, which should be "funding neutral".

In March, AIU-London received an encouraging response to these points. Private institutions will now be consulted by the QAA on operational changes that arise from the review, and the review group signalled that the quality assurance framework will need to provide for the proper measurement of privately funded higher education institutions against those in the public sector.

These are steps in the right direction. But there remains the matter of the QAA itself. I do not know whether the Quality Assurance Commission (www.qac-uk.org), which I discovered recently, is intended as a joke or as a serious attempt to establish a private-sector alternative to the QAA. But its existence raises an interesting question. All commercial enterprises in this country, great and small, have to be audited. But it is not the state that audits them. Instead, the state prescribes the regulatory framework within which private companies carry out this essential audit function. A number of the largest commercial auditing firms would be more than capable of carrying out an academic audit, and they might be persuaded to do so at a competitive unit cost.

Such competition would be good for the sector, good for the taxpayer and good for the QAA.

Geoffrey Alderman is senior vice-president of AIU-London. He writes in a personal capacity.

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