Quality plan stalls as QAA faces dissent

September 17, 1999

The framework for the new university quality assurance regime for British universities is in disarray, with university chiefs, the funding councils and the quality watchdog at loggerheads.

The framework was supposed to be finalised at a Quality Assurance Agency board meeting this week, published later this month and implemented from next year. But as QAA chief executive John Randall went on leave this week until mid-October, none of the key stakeholders had approved the plans.

Endorsement by the funding councils is a prerequisite because the councils are legally obliged to ensure provision is made to assure the quality of institutions they fund. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has now confirmed that final decisions about details "have not been taken".

The Welsh funding council's board has not yet met to consider the plans, while the Scottish council confirmed that it had agreed broad principles, but will not endorse the framework until next Easter.

The vice-chancellors, who own the QAA as a limited company, had been kept in the dark about details and are only now beginning to draw up a response to the QAA plans. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said this week that "there is a long way to go".

The rift centres on whether judgements about teaching quality should be verbal or numerical. The CVCP rejects numbers, arguing that they are crude and can be manipulated for use in league tables. But the funding councils, understood to be under pressure from ministers, favour a system that allows easy summative judgements to be made. They have argued to retain a numerical system.

The QAA unveiled a compromise at a closed session of the CVCP's annual meeting this week. It is understood that judgements on three areas of teaching provision - teaching and learning; student progression; and the utilisation of learning resources - would be reported using a four-point scale. Descriptions for each point would be in words rather than in numbers, but could easily be converted into numerical judgements for use in league tables.

Vice-chancellors are privately furious about the compromise, claiming that it is a numerical system by the back door. Other areas of teaching quality, including curriculum design and content and learning outcomes, will be reported using pass or fail judgements.

There is also deep concern about the QAA's plans to vary the intensity of scrutiny depending on institutions' track records. Mr Randall told the CVCP that initial visits from the QAA's academic reviewers could take the form of "screening" to determine what, if any, further scrutiny was required. Scrutiny would be light where institutions could show a good track record. But the QAA has yet to reveal the criteria for deciding upon a "light touch". There are fears that such a system could lead to a new university hierarchy, with high-prestige institutions such as Oxbridge, for example, getting a light touch even though they have not been able to demonstrate sound internal quality-assurance systems, because they have refused to be audited by the QAA. Other top institutions have fallen foul of QAA audits, despite excellent teaching quality.

Howard Newby, president of the CVCP, said: "John Randall stated that for the new system to work, the sector has to feel a sense of ownership I we agree with that. There is still a long way to go, although (the discussion this week) was a start to the process. He did assure us that the burden placed upon institutions would be substantially reduced."

Mr Randall refused to comment.

Background, page 3; Leader, page 16

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