QAA warns institutions off 'gold-plating' their audits

Avoid wasteful bureaucratic second-guessing, says watchdog chief. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 24, 2008

The quality watchdog has told universities that they will be penalised if they are caught using "unnecessary bureaucracy" to try to secure a positive inspection outcome.

Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said his organisation would take action if an institution were found to be "gold-plating" its quality assurance activities by introducing procedures such as "rehearsals" for audits.

In the QAA's annual report, he writes: "The practice of 'gold-plating' by institutions of their quality assurance activities - that is, employing unnecessary bureaucratic procedures in an attempt to guarantee a good audit outcome - is now itself likely to be criticised by our reviewers."

He told Times Higher Education the universities guilty of gold-plating "didn't want to leave anything to chance ... (But) they are inflicting pain upon themselves that is not necessary. Our view is that they should not waste time and resources in this way. They should be looking at their own processes and making sure they are fit for purpose ... and not trying to second-guess us by putting in unnecessary bureaucracies," Mr Williams said.

"We've put higher education institutions on notice that if we see this happening, we will be critical."

The practice of gold-plating was highlighted in JM Consulting's 2005 report The Costs and Benefits of External Review of Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

The report says a proportion of the financial costs of audit to institutions were, arguably, self-inflicted.

Activities such as preparing large volumes of module boxes, dry runs, road shows and mocks, involving all departments in briefings for the audit, and "reinvention of the wheel" in different departments due to lack of clear institutional guidance could all be considered examples.

"Our assessment is that the combination of these factors added significantly to the costs of audit for some departments and some institutions," the report says.

"Arguably, this is wasteful and an inefficient use of public funds. It is increasing the burden of review and reducing the cost-effectiveness of institutional audit."

The report estimates that the total avoidable costs of over-preparation could be in the order of £1.5 million.

Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Northumbria University, said he supported the QAA's warning. "Control engineers know that a dynamic feedback system will adjust itself to optimise the performance indicators. It happened with the RAE.

"Quality assurance belongs to the institutions, not the QAA, and should be reflected in sensible light-touch procedures and processes that are fit for purpose and assure the quality of provision," he said.

"They should be part of the normal running of the university, not a heavy-handed gold-plated bolt-on. Northumbria has no 'Quality Unit', no pro vice-chancellor (quality) or suchlike, but prides itself on an approach that is built in to everything we do."

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