Education secretary David Blunkett's plan to slash the burden of teaching quality inspections is in the balance as the agency charged with implementing it keeps raising fundamental objections.
The Quality Assurance Agency claims that the cost-cutting measures could increase dropouts, harm access plans, deter potential overseas students and even leave the agency insolvent. It is set for a showdown today with funding chiefs and vice-chancellors who back the minister.
Mr Blunkett forced the agency to rethink its quality assurance framework last month when he announced that teaching inspections would be cut by 40 per cent. Top-ranked departments would escape inspections, but 25 per cent of them would be "sampled".
He left the QAA to work out details with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK and begin implementing his changes in the new regime starting in January 2002.
After an emergency board meeting, the QAA said that it had accepted the principle of sampling and recognised that it had to meet the minister's demands, but it agreed that "what was needed was a rational and sensible basis for sampling, driven by evidence and intelligent use of the information".
The agency's main concerns about the rapid end to universal inspections are that:
- Public confidence in quality will fall as some departments escape scrutiny for years and published reports age. The basis for securing future exemptions will become unclear
- Access efforts could suffer because non-traditional entrants rely more on formal information about courses and universities than middle-class entrants
- Dropouts could rise because of bad choices made on the basis of poor information
- Opportunities for spreading best practice will be lost as the focus shifts to inspecting the worst provision
- Mr Blunkett said that exempt departments would be sampled "by agreement", which could leave entire institutions and subject areas with no scrutiny
- The plan is exclusive to England and will damage the QAA's UK-wide approach
- There has been no opportunity to consult and no indication that the plan is acceptable to the sector and stakeholders
- The QAA could be left insolvent by the plan. Hefce, which has a legal obligation to ensure that standards in universities are monitored, is renegotiating its contract with the QAA to run the new system. It is understood that Hefce is proposing to cut the QAA's budget by about 40 per cent in a contract due to be signed by July to force Mr Blunkett's agenda on a reluctant QAA.
"The board has a first-order responsibility for ensuring the financial viability of the organisation," a QAA statement said. "This will need to be considered further once there is greater clarity on the financial impact of the proposed changes."