QAA head's parting shot at MPs' 'Spanish Inquisition'

Outgoing chief tells Rebecca Attwood about rude committees and the need for autonomy

October 8, 2009

"Universities maintain that they produce quality products. But it always struck me that they opened themselves up to criticism if anyone said 'prove it'."

These were the words of Peter Williams in an interview with The Times Higher Education Supplement about his appointment as head of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' Academic Audit Unit in 1990.

Nearly 20 years on, as Mr Williams retires as head of the Quality Assurance Agency, the sector is dusting itself off after a battering by the former Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. In its Students and Universities report last summer, the IUSS declares the system for safeguarding standards in universities "unfit" and accuses the sector of complacency.

"It wasn't being complacent - it was merely reacting in a naturally defensive way to a quite unnecessarily aggressive form of questioning," Mr Williams said.

He added that the "belligerent" and "accusatory" language and tone of the committee's report seemed "more appropriate for the Spanish Inquisition".

The QAA's response to the IUSS, published last week, warns that the MPs' quality-assurance ideas would damage the sector's diversity and pedagogic creativity.

"The idea that you can micromanage standards in 135 awarding bodies is surprising. We don't need monolithic standards-setting. It would be a disaster," Mr Williams said.

In the past two decades, he added, universities have done an "incredible job" of maintaining standards amid a significant increase in student numbers. While he put this down in large part to the efforts of the sector, he suggested that it is also the consequence of effective external-quality assurance.

"I am in no doubt at all that without a good, strong quality assurance regime, things would be very different," he said.

However, if the sector wants to maintain its autonomy, it must answer some of the questions that have been put to it recently, he added.

"There are answers to all those questions, and they are persuasive answers, but the case needs to be made. It will not be automatically accepted," Mr Williams said.

Questions, questions

The most pressing questions are those that reflect the tension between autonomous institutions and a national system: the way students' achievement is described and the role of external examiners, he said, adding that these can be dealt with readily if the collective will is there.

"During the last 30 years, exactly the same criticisms have been constantly levelled at the external-examiner system," Mr Williams said.

This time, he is optimistic about the plans to beef up the system. But if this does not happen, he warned, "the external-examiner system is probably doomed. It will just drift on, nobody will understand it and nobody will believe in it."

Last week's report on quality for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the sector's response to the IUSS inquiry, called for the QAA to adopt a more "public-facing" role.

Mr Williams said this was "one of these unfortunate bits of jargon which comes, from time to time, from the mouths of those who should know better".

"What it seems to mean is that you are trying to explain very complex things in very simple terms, and the simpler the terms, the more likely it is that they will be misinterpreted," he said.

"Good plain English is rarely simple - it is usually very sophisticated. When I have used plain English, I have been criticised for it."

Mr Williams was referring to comments he made to the BBC in summer 2008 that the degree-classification system was "rotten".

Asked whether he regretted this, he admitted he could have chosen his words more carefully in hindsight.

"I now regret having used plain English. What I said was perfectly explicable, but it was misinterpreted. If I had said 'not fit for purpose' instead of 'rotten', there would have been no excitement."

He added that he had argued for years that the degree-classification system should be abolished.

One of the few things in the IUSS report Mr Williams agrees with is its call for a concordat clarifying the limits of government intervention and the boundaries of universities' freedom.

"There is, of course, always a danger of writing these things down. However, I think we have seen in the past 20 years such a strong move by governments to control and influence what universities are doing that their capacity to act as independent protectors of democratic values could come under serious threat."

In this light, the boundaries between the two estates have to be clarified, he added.

Reflecting on the timing of his departure, he said that "whenever one goes it will be in the middle of some sort of interesting debate. But I have no doubt that the agency is in good hands, in good heart and in fine fettle, and is up to any challenge that may be put to it."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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