Quality assessor who fell asleep on the job

November 15, 1996

Excessive costs and inspector "incompetence" are two of the criticisms of teaching quality assessment exercises contained in a report released this week.

The University Council of Modern Languages' report, called Assessing the Assessors, also says that "inconsistencies" in Higher Education Funding Council for England assessment exercises cast doubt on their validity, particularly when used to construct national university league tables.

The UCML, which monitored HEFCE assessment visits carried out between October 1995 and May this year, found that nearly a quarter of all respondents agreed that the cost of the exercises were out of all proportion to the benefits gained.

Respondents described the cost as a "national scandal" and "immoral" given current funding problems.

Some departments said that their senior staff were "effectively immobilised" for long periods of time while they prepared for the exercise. Some suggested that assessments cost between Pounds 12,000 and Pounds 30,000 in terms of lost staff time.

Fifty-four per cent of the respondents said they were satisfied with the assessors' conduct while 46 per cent were dissatisfied. It was reported that one assessor fell asleep during teaching observations while another tried to use the assessment visit to try to recruit a member of staff for his own department. On top of this there were perceived inconsistencies between individual assessment panels.

There was also concern at the HEFCE grading system for departments with 16 per cent of respondents arguing that it was "invidious" and that the "inevitable league tables encouraged by such grading would be meaningless".

The report's author, Hilary Footitt, head of the school of languages at Westminster University, said: "We would like HEFCE to take action on this report. We would hope to engage in more dialogue with the funding council, hopefully placing greater emphasis on development of aspects of the exercise."

Only 7 per cent of respondents stated explicitly that the positive results outweighed the negative. The biggest plus point of the exercise was seen to be that they encouraged departments to look at themselves more critically.

A HEFCE spokesman said that the council had yet to see a copy of the report and would wait until then to comment fully.

But he said that comments on the quality assessment process were welcome and pointed out that the cost of quality assessment is less than 0.2 per cent of allocations to teaching and learning.

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