Outsiders looking in

February 5, 1999

The inspectors who judge schools should evaluate our university teaching, argues Peter Knight.

I recently gave evidence to the government's select committee on education and employment. The subject was the inspection of university teacher training courses by schools inspectorate Ofsted.

I was asked whether I thought the inspectors' surveillance of teacher-training courses should instead be carried out by the Quality Assessment Agency. The agency, which is approved by universities, uses academics rather than external assessors to judge the standard of teaching in subjects other than teacher training.

I not only indicated that I did not think that the QAA could replace Ofsted, I said, rather forcefully, that I would prefer the quality of all degree courses to be decided by the schools inspectors rather than see universities drifting aimlessly into an untested method for measuring standards.

We live in a society where publicly funded services are subject to inspection. The universities are almost unique in being immune from external scrutiny of this type. Inspection by external agencies ensures that the public is getting value for money, that the quality of what is being provided is satisfactory and that poor quality teaching is improved.

After all, the old polytechnics were subject to inspection by an earlier incarnation of the schools inspectorate, Her Majesty's Inspectors. Once or twice a year HMI would announce that it would visit a large polytechnic in order to assess sociology, English, chemistry or whatever subject was being reviewed nationally at the time. The visits were conducted with courtesy, and thoughtful, fair reports were published. The inspectors imparted useful knowledge about changes in teaching practices elsewhere in the sector and, while no one would agree with every judgement made, the inspectors were considered an important safeguard.

So why have we moved away from external inspection to invent the complex systems that have ground us all down over the past ten years - years characterised by complete failure to establish a reliable method of assessing the quality of teaching and learning in universities? We have staggered from one ill-conceived idea to another, with little relief from the burden of bureaucracy and duplication of effort that the various mechanisms have produced.

First of all, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals tried to reinvent the old concept of institutional review, but delivered through a new quango, the Higher Education Quality Council. The idea was that by reviewing a university's approach to quality assurance, you could improve its quality of teaching. This attempt at self-regulation was intended to prevent something worse being imposed by the government.

The strategy failed spectacularly and the government introduced its own quality assurance visits. The first system of visits categorised the quality of courses as excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory. This had the appalling consequence of designating most university courses merely "satisfactory". It is difficult to envisage a more demeaning word applied to a system that has always prided itself on excellent teaching.

Eventually the government acknowledged its mistake and moved to the existing system, whereby a 24-point score is the basis for evaluating academics' teaching. But all this succeeded in doing was to demonstrate that there is a problem, with only about 1 or 2 per cent of all courses investigated. If one purpose of quality assurance is to catch the sinners rather than to reward the virtuous, there is precious little evidence of wickedness around.

By contrast, with all these time-consuming and ill-conceived methods, Ofsted inspection would be so straightforward. Ofsted has a full-time professional staff, experienced in the teaching of the higher education curriculum, who could be supported by appropriate subject experts.

Their principal purpose would be to inspect the experience that the student receives in the classroom and laboratory. Minimal paperwork would be required: just the course handbook and a timetable. Moreover, inspectors should have a statutory right of entry. If a disproportionate number of student complaints were received, the inspectorate would go in.

The value of this approach is that universities would be relieved of the bureaucratic burden that the existing systems generate. Public confidence would be enhanced because the inspectorate would be seen as independent and, naturally, the reports would be published, perhaps attracting more attention than do the existing QAA reports, which sink into instant obscurity.

I can already hear the clarion cry: "It is not possible, it would not work, it could not be done." But the approach worked for half the sector ten years ago, why not reintroduce it now? Life would be simple, the paperwork would be negligible and the results would command the respect of the sector and the public alike.

Bring back inspectors: a challenging rally cry.

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England.

* Should schools inspectors take over assessment of the quality of university teaching on all degree courses? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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