Academics renewed their attack on excessive external scrutiny this week as it emerged that Plymouth University claims to spend about £1.3 million a year on quality assurance.
Sara Jennett, head of the quality evaluation and enhancement unit at Plymouth, told colleagues last week that she and the university's administrators had "frightened themselves" after a rough survey discovered that the university spends about 1 per cent of its entire annual turnover on "quality processes".
The university this week said the calculation was just a "ballpark figure" meant for internal use, but it confirmed that its annual turnover was £130 million - meaning the estimated sum spent on quality assurance was £1.3 million.
"This does not appear to represent value for money," said Geoffrey Alderman, former head of quality assurance at Middlesex University and now academic dean at American Intercontinental University in London. "I would find it very hard to justify £1.3 million per annum. Think of the things you could do with that amount of money."
Ms Jennett and Plymouth's vice-chancellor, Roland Levinsky, declined to be interviewed by The THES . It is not clear how they calculated the figure, whether it includes simply the cost of conforming to quality agencies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and how much it reflects the cost of conforming to the new "light-touch" QAA audit regime.
A Plymouth spokeswoman said: "As part of its internal review of administration, the University of Plymouth is looking at methods of costing its processes... With a view to ensuring that our own quality processes are as efficient and effective as possible, we contacted other universities."
But Ms Jennett says in an email to a discussion group: "We frightened ourselves recently by a rough exercise that established we were spending approximately 1 per cent of our annual turnover on quality processes and related staffing posts. But then we thought - maybe 1 per cent isn't such a bad figure for the assurance of quality?"
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said: "You could take the view that 1 per cent is not a huge amount to spend on quality assurance. But the real question is not how much money but what value you get for the money spent. If this sum is spent just to meet bureaucratic requirements, then there is cause for complaint."
He said he was not convinced that the new QAA light-touch audit system reduced the burden on institutions. He said: "It just transfers the cost.
There is no subject review but there are other new costs, such as the need for administrators and marketing people to accumulate all the new demands for public information."
Professor Alderman said: "My guess is that the bulk of the cost in the new regime is in the subject-level 'drillings down'" - investigations set up to replace universal subject reviews.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, said: "It is up to institutions to decide what level of expenditure... (is) appropriate to make sure that their academic standards and quality are safeguarded. Plymouth's 30,000 students will doubtless be reassured to know that the university considers it worthwhile spending 1 per cent of its budget assuring the quality of their programmes."