Quality that can't add up

March 22, 1996

Ministers must be wondering whether they have taken a rod to their own backs by banging on about standards in higher education. The attempts of higher education minister Eric Forth to dump the blame for the damage done to higher education by underfunded expansion of universities could backfire.

Mr Forth is being simplistic, and is conflating quality with standards. Of course it is possible to hold a standard steady and cut the money available to help students reach that standard. What is not possible is to deliver high quality and constant standards on less money. Getting larger cohorts up to fixed standards is expensive.

The Higher Education Quality Council's report, Learning from Audit 2, published this week, shows how much more complicated the matter is (News, page 3). It suggests there are indeed issues for concern, but that they are not as stated by Mr Forth and some involve money.

The report analyses the management of quality in 48 higher education institutions - mostly former polytechnics, higher education colleges and London University colleges and schools. Its conclusions are tough, implying that some institutions are not yet ready to act as their own quality watchdogs. HEQC found continuing weaknesses in assessment and classification, use of external examiners and learning support services. Their report raises serious questions about how many institutions would be judged "mature" enough to be left to their own quality assurance devices under the sort of new quality regime apparently envisaged by the Joint Planning Group for a single quality agency. It is also quite clear that one of the biggest threats to quality is funding cuts.

But that has nothing to do with standards. The report also shows that provision and institutional missions are increasingly diverse, and that notions of what is meant by standards are correspondingly varied. HEQC is already grappling with the problem of finding kinds of missions and provision which might be grouped together for the purposes of defining comparable standards. Such differentiation sits ill with Mr Forth's implied requirement - inherited from previous Secretary of State John Patten - for some sort of "gold" standard.

Small wonder those charged with trying to square the circle get irritated at being hectored by people who muddle up what should be separated out and describe as "bull****" the sort of quality control now being operated successfully in the Netherlands (page 13).

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