QAA should stay its heavy hand

January 19, 2001

Proposals for an inspection regime that varies in line with top-up fees are flawed, writes Geoffrey Alderman.

In a paper leaked to The THES , the Quality Assurance Agency's chief executive, John Randall, has proposed that if UK universities are permitted to charge differential tuition fees, those charging higher fees can expect a heavier rather than a lighter touch from his inspectorate.

In his paper, he holds out the prospect of "published quality measures" comparable to the league tables of schools and hospitals. Only "world-class institutions" such as Oxbridge and University College London would escape this heavier touch.

There are in the QAA's paper some sinister implications that the sector needs to recognise and contemplate. It costs a certain quantum of money to educate a student through a degree programme. A student is entitled to the same quality of education, and the same quality of information about that education, whether that money is paid wholly by the state, partly by the state and partly by the student (or the student's parents) or wholly by the student. Or so the theory goes.

But what the QAA is proposing seems rather different. What is being proposed is a two-tier, or even multi-tier, scheme in which the depth of inspection by the QAA would be crudely proportional to the amount of top-up fee charged. The higher the top-up, the more onerous the scrutiny. Perversely, those institutions charging no top-up could legitimately claim that they deserve a lighter touch than those that choose to charge. Indeed, such no-fee institutions could well use this as a marketing strategy: less quality control from Gloucester, but an education that is much cheaper to the consumer. Caveat emptor . That, after all, is what consumer choice is all about.

And why should Oxbridge and similar institutions escape a tougher inspection? Oxford and Cambridge claim to offer an education vastly superior to that to be obtained anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and comparable to only a handful of other institutions worldwide. In a fees free-for-all, they would charge premium rates. If the QAA were consistent, Oxbridge would be subject to the toughest inspections of all.

Before it goes any further with its proposals, the QAA needs to think much harder about their implications. It needs to think about how it will respond to the inevitable public outcry the proposals will provoke. Why should parents whose offspring go to non-top-up universities get a lesser quality of service from the QAA than those who pay top-up fees? And (something the QAA does not like to discuss) what level of confidence can the public place in its judgements?

In the United States, a university that takes serious issue with the report of an accrediting agency can demand arbitration by the Washington-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation or call in the lawyers. If the UK had a free market in fees, institutions that lose projected fee income because of disputed inspection results would want the right of appeal against the QAA and might sue for damages. Does Mr Randall's agency have the wherewithal to meet such claims?

Meanwhile, from those vice-chancellors who, a year ago, supported the QAA's inspection arrangements on the grounds that they would lead to a "lighter touch", is it too much to expect a public admission that they were duped and a public apology?

Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of Touro College, New York, was formerly pro vice-chancellor for quality and standards at Middlesex University, London.

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