Quality chiefs dilute proposals

May 22, 1998

The Quality Assurance Agency has watered down controversial proposals for registered external examiners in a radical bid to achieve consensus over a new quality system.

In the wake of strong objections to the QAA's approach, a confidential document from QAA chief executive John Randall outlines a revised model with a much lighter touch. "The main burden of external subject review is lifted. Selfassessment is at the heart of the model," it says.

Vice-chancellors believe the paper also tones down proposals to establish benchmark standards, but Mr Randall said: "Benchmarking is going ahead. We have got the first three groups established. We thought it would be helpful to share with the funding and representative bodies some of the emerging conclusions from the early stages of consultation so as to assist them in developing their own responses."

Critics of the original proposals, unveiled in March, see the new paper as welcome evidence that the QAA is genuinely consulting the sector. Rather than having a pool of registered external examiners reporting directly to the QAA, the new model proposes examiners appointed by institutions, working with QAA academic reporters.

The frequency of institutional reviews is still to be decided, but the QAA paper says institutions with good systems will have fewer visits.

Teaching quality assessment should come under internal review arrangements. As part of institutional reviews, reviewers would "sample" evidence from a small number of recently assessed subjects, but might also join internal review teams at short notice.

If there were doubts about the internal process, there could be a question of an external review, "using the existing subject review methodology".

The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals is poised to propose a code of practice for internal reviews that aims to ensure institutional reviews will also have a lighter touch. Coshep is circulating a draft response that is understood to suggest a code of practice for internal departmental and programme reviews, maintaining the external examiner system. Compliance with the code would be monitored through the institutional review, and would avoid the need for further external subject reviews.

The QAA paper acknowledges that there must be public information on quality, but this need not be generated only through external scrutiny. Institutions could produce an annual "quality statement" following criteria set the QAA and funding bodies. But it warns that there will be a transitional period during which institutions will have to prove that their internal review systems are reliable.

Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, who led the attack on the original proposals, said: "I welcome this as the new basis for discussion."

A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said: "Our standards and quality group have seen the paper and we are encouraged by it."

* Personal view, page 11

* Letters, page 14

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