University leaders have won their war against the quality inspectors with a quality-assurance blueprint that strikes a blow for institutional autonomy and all but abolishes teaching quality assessments, writes Phil Baty.
Consultative proposals for a quality-assurance system that introduces a hands-off, audit-based approach to external scrutiny were published this week.
This would end lengthy and intrusive visits by external inspectors examining the quality of all teaching, subject by subject, at a cost of about £300 million a year.
The paper, published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Quality Assurance Agency and the vice-chancellors, represents a climb-down by the QAA, which had been keen on strong external scrutiny and had hoped to retain universal subject-level inspection.
"The presumption is that every HEI approves, monitors and reviews its quality and standards through internal procedures," the consultation paper says. "The external element then audits, on a highly selective basis, the effectiveness of that internal framework."
Universities will be audited on a three-year cycle, before moving to a five-year process.
Institutions will be responsible for publishing information annually, which may include external examiner report summaries, student feedback and recruitment and progression data. This would become "the primary resource for students, employers and others to get up-to-date consistent information about quality and standards" and would be checked during external audits.
The regime would "carry out only on a highly selective basis detailed external reviews at the level of the subject areas or theme, rather than continuing to review externally all subject areas on a comprehensive basis".
The paper should be welcomed by the elite Russell Group of research-led universities, which has been lobbying for the audit-based approach and the phasing out of subject-level inspection.
The proposed arrangements would not apply to courses funded by the Department of Health.
Consultation ends on October 26.
King's rejects warning about standards
King's College London has been warned that it may not be able to safeguard its quality and standards in the future, in a quality audit report that the university rejected as "unacceptable" and inaccurate.
The report has become a cause cel bre of the top universities' fight against what they see as the over-zealous and ill-informed regime of the Quality Assurance Agency.
The auditors warned King's that while there was confidence in its quality-assurance systems, "there would be some uncertainty about the college's ability to maintain quality and standards in the future".
Vice-principal Barry Ife said the QAA's auditors had failed to "engage intellectually" with the university and had sought to impose their preferred bureaucratic model.
The auditors had meddled with the university's auto-nomy by pushing their preference for a centralised "corporate" quality-assurance system, he said.
King's said its position in the marketplace and the good results of teaching quality assessments and professional body accreditation, make clear it is maintaining the highest standards.
The QAA report said there was little clear evidence of "an effective degree of monitoring or of executive action at college level. It highlighted variations in practice, from one school to another, in assessment arrangements and in the terms ofreference of teaching committees.
It also emerged this week that a planned audit of the London School of Economics will not go ahead following the LSE's opposition to the QAA.