Quality not assured

August 24, 2001

John Randall explains why the proposed alternative to the QAA will fail to fulfil customer needs.

Two entirely false presumptions underpin the proposals for future quality assurance arrangements in England.

The first is the urban myth that ending the present arrangements would release £250 million to be spent on teaching and research. The figure comes from a flawed report ( Better Accountability for Higher Education , published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England), that was characterised by anecdote and double counting of costs.

Universities are large and complex organisations. A great deal of skilled management is needed to make them work effectively and, as in any service organisation, resources must be committed to ensuring that a good quality product is delivered to the customer.

It is too easy for academics to dismiss anything other than teaching or research as administration or bureaucracy. But in most professional service fields, effective management and continuous quality improvement are seen as an integral part of professionalism, not as a distraction from it. The dangers of ineffective quality management in professional fields are seen only too clearly in the report on the tragic mistakes made at Bristol Royal Infirmary.

In gathering evidence about the costs of quality assurance, the consultants accumulated anecdotes about time spent on quality work, paper generated, and even photocopiers that had reached the end of their lives. They quoted, with apparent approval, a complaint from the Association of University Teachers that "administration" was a driver for excessive hours worked.

The cost of all of this time, including time acknowledged to be the result of over-preparation for external reviews, was then guesstimated at £250 million across the sector.

The reality is that almost all of this derided "administration" would occur anyway. Universities need internal quality mechanisms, and senior staff cannot abdicate their responsibilities to manage their departments. It is convenient to have an external agency to blame for a perceived burden, but removal of the Quality Assurance Agency would not remove responsibility from academics for the proper management of the programmes they provide.

The clearest illustration that the changes now proposed would not reduce these internal costs comes from the example of management information systems quoted in the Better Accountability report. External demands for data capture and reporting are cited by the consultants as costs that "serve little internal purpose" and are seen as "an unwanted burden".

Yet the consultation paper proposes that institutions should make available standard data sets. Would these not be likely to place just as much demand on management information systems?

The second false premise is the adoption of "external financial audit" as an analogy for the proposed model. Company auditors owe their duty to the shareholders, they are appointed by them and report to them in annual general meetings. The analogy is, at best, partial and, at worst, misleading.

Of course, one purpose of scrutinising quality is to assure the taxpayers, whose money is invested in higher education, that all is well. But financial audit is not about assuring customers that they are getting value for money or high standards of service. Yet that type of public information is precisely what external quality assurance of universities and colleges should be providing.

The model proposed in the consultation paper needs to be rethought. It is not enough to justify its shortcomings by setting them against a wholly imaginary saving of £250 million. It is entirely wrong to proceed by analogy with safeguards designed for the owners, not the customers, of a business. Students and employers are entitled to expect independent information on more than 10 per cent of provision. It is time to put the interests of the consumer first.

John Randall resigned this week as chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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