Last month Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, called on the Higher Education Funding Council to come up with proposals for external quality assurance. Producing them will take time -- nationwide consultation will not begin until the council publishes its initial proposals, probably not before spring.
Buckingham University thinks it has an ideal model for external quality assurance while Plymouth University is touting quality monitoring on a regional subject basis.
The academic advisory council at Buckingham, a formal body dating from the foundation of the university in 1973, is seen as ideal. According to the university's 1983 charter, it must consist of "persons of high academic standing". Five councillors are appointed by the Privy Council, and currently these include the Cambridge law professor John Jolowicz and Keith Robbins, principal of University College Lampeter. The rest -- up to a maximum of 15 -- are appointed by the university's council. There are now eight such councillors, among them Peter Mathias, the master of Downing College in Cambridge.
Once a year, the council meets in plenary session: a closed meeting in the morning, an open meeting with representatives of the university in the afternoon. Anything from the vice chancellor's annual report to the appointment of external examiners -- over which the councillors retain the power of veto -- is covered.
More detailed work is left to the subject subcommittee meetings, held on other days. Two or three members of the AAC familiar with the subject under review meet the dean of school and the degree programme chairman to consider the reports of external examiners and the annual reports on degree courses and the evaluation of teaching. Issues include student numbers, entry qualifications and completion rates.
Robert Pearce, pro-vice chancellor, says that it "offers a model which would be worth emulating elsewhere". The council "has no powers to order the university to do this, that or the other", but it still provides a testing form of quality control. "The mere fact that the university has to report to the council is a constraint. After all, no one wants to wash their dirty linen in public," he says.
The AAC recommendations are not published, but according to Professor Pearce, the "eminence" of the members -- and the way they are appointed -- "means they really have to be listened to with some respect. To disregard them would not only be embarrassing, it would be a very serious matter. In auditing terms, it would be a cardinal sin".
This means the appointment of members -- "who are fiercely independent and who would never compromise their principles" -- is the lynchpin of the system. External auditors could be HEFCE accredited and it could be charged with periodically assessing the effectiveness of the system: the diligence of the council members and how institutions are heeding their advice.
Norman Jackson, head of Plymouth University's quality control department, has suggested putting quality on a regional as well as a subject basis with academic standards panels. For example, one could cover history in the south-west and another mathematics in the midlands.
Each might comprise members from a cluster of ten to 15 institutions. One advantage of the system is the fact that "there would be no need for a subject external examiner". Dr Jackson adds that the system could be extended to embrace the auditing process.