Oxbridge turns guns on report

October 17, 1997

Oxford and Cambridge universities lead a chorus of criticism in the latest Dearing submissions

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY

SIR Ron Dearing's proposed quality assurance regime could make a "costly, prescriptive and interventionist" system even worse, Cambridge University warns in its response to Dearing. "Some universities", it says, may not be prepared to accept it, writes Phil Baty.

Cambridge's governing council welcomed as "promising" Dearing's proposals for minimum "threshold" degree standards "for particular institutions". But it warned that Dearing's compulsory code of practice, which would become a condition of public funding by 2001, was problematic: "There is a danger that such a code could reintroduce a bad approach by the back door and that an audit culture will develop."

The university also warns that proposals for a national pool of external examiners may make too many demands on staff time and institutions' resources. "The commitment of time which Dearing suggests is very large and will be discouraging to those who are of most value as external examiners to universities such as Cambridge," the university says.

"There is concern already that the emerging quality assurance regime is becoming too prescriptive and interventionist, and too costly," it adds. "The proposals may exacerbate this, and if, as seems likely, some universities are not prepared to accept the new regime there is a risk of dividing the university system, something which many would wish to avoid."

Cambridge was very critical of both Dearing and the government's early response. Problems were identified in the following areas:

* Funding and student support: universities must receive the full "gross" benefit of the new tuition fees. Furthermore, "the evidence does not convince the council that the government will achieve an enduring solution to the funding problem". Plans to abolish the means-tested maintenance grant are "plainly regressive" and the government's threat of legal action to prevent institutions charging "top-up fees" are "illiberal".

* Staff development and training: Cambridge "strongly challenges" Dearing's conclusion that university teaching lacks professionalism, and casts doubt on plans for the new Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

* Pay: "It was most disappointing that Dearing did not recommend a pay review body."

* Governance: Dearing's recommended "imposed template" for governance does not attach enough significance to institutions' history and circumstances. "The governance of a university cannot, without the risk of catastrophic damage, be considered in isolation from its culture and mission."

OXFORD UNIVERSITY

GOVERNMENT reaction to plans for students to pay tuition fees has "seriously muddied the water", says Oxford University in its response to the Dearing report, writes Harriet Swain. Oxford says ministers must clarify how they want the arrangements to work. And it warns: "There are dangers, despite the reference to parliamentary control, that having found this new source of funds governments may in future exploit it more and more."

It would be "wholly unacceptable" if the extra money was not applied wholly to the support of higher education, it adds.

Other areas of concern included:

* Institute of Learning and Teaching: this needs to be cheaper.

* Student progress files: it may not be possible to find a format applicable to all institutions.

* Programme specifications and framework of qualifications: These recommendations "reflect a view of the structure of higher education courses which may be accurate for a great many universities but is not accurate for others".

* Arts and Humanities Research Council: funding is likely to be transferred for this from existing budgets and there is no advantage in taking control of expenditure away from the universities to a council seen as an instrument of national policy. It raises "concern about dirigisme and state control".

* Governance: "We see no need to change systems where they work well, especially if this would reduce the opportunity for democratic involvement." Oxford is "strongly opposed" to reports on compliance with a code of practice being a condition of funding.

* Postqualification applications: Oxford says any new system should allow time for universities with highly competitive courses to consider candidates at interview.

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