The "dead hand of uniformity" is being promoted by higher education accreditation systems, a global education summit in Qatar has heard.
Peter Williams, former chief executive of the UK's Quality Assurance Agency, told the World Innovation Summit for Education that too many accreditation systems were stifling innovation. Most systems "are designed to try to ensure guaranteed and replicable outcomes to minimise risks of unacceptable variability in quality or standards", he told delegates in Doha in the first of a new series of annual meetings arranged by the Qatar Foundation.
And he warned that such approaches encourage conservatism at the time when globalisation requires institutions to be responsive to change.
"Radical change never happened in a risk-free environment," he said. "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. But how can we move forward if the dead hand of uniformity, too often represented by our accreditation procedures, is designed precisely to stop universities from breaking eggs, from taking risks?"
His concerns were echoed by Luc Weber, president of the think-tank Glion Colloquium, and a former rector of the University of Geneva, who argued that international quality assurance systems are in a state of "adolescence", adding that the ultimate aim of such systems must be to develop a "quality culture" within the institutions themselves.
This, Professor Weber said, is more likely to happen when institutions are given responsibility for their own quality assurance. If an outside regulatory body is in charge, "almost by necessity the approach is summative and leads to sanctions, for example, reduced funding or the withholding of accreditation".
Earlier, Mr Williams said he firmly believed in the "liberation that deep knowledge and understanding of a subject - whether of immediately direct economic value or not - can bring to an individual's life.
"But I also recognise that many, perhaps most, students see higher education as no more than a means to the end of getting a better job ... This makes them suspicious of any innovation that will reduce the value of their qualification."
He suggested a "radical solution" to the problems, arguing that accreditation should move away from the notion of "compliance" to one aimed at the "achievement of stated and agreed intentions or outcomes". He said a firm distinction should be drawn between the term "quality assurance", which refers to internal university activity, and "accreditation", which should be used to describe "official external regulatory activities".