The Quality Assessment Agency inquiry at Thames Valley University, the debate about Oxbridge college fees and the publication of the Higher Education Quality Council/QAA continuation audit reports on Exeter and Sheffield, all raise the issue of institutional responsibility for quality and standards.
It is a fundamental tenet of United Kingdom higher education that individual universities are responsible for the quality and standards of the programmes and awards made in their name. This principle was reaffirmed by the Dearing committee.
Unfortunately there is evidence that this responsibility is not being properly discharged and that institutions do not have adequate information about, or control over, the various processes which lead to, and, in effect, determine, the quality of the educational attainment and the student experience that the award of the qualification signifies. This evidence comes from HEQC audits of institutions as disparate as the federal universities of London and Wales, the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the "old" universities of Exeter and Sheffield, as well as some of the newer institutions.
In all of these cases auditors raised serious question marks about the university's ability to act as the guardian of the standard of its programmes and awards and the associated educational experience. These reports are the work of council audit teams and not self-appointed bureaucrats.
These weaknesses have come to light particularly in off-campus programmes of various kinds, including those involving partnerships with institutions overseas. The national committee has recommended that from 2000-2001 all collaborative partnerships should be certified individually by the new quality agency as complying with its quality criteria.
What will this imply for institutional autonomy? There is at least a risk that responsibility for quality and standards will pass from the institution concerned to the agency. The same risk arises from a number of the other Dearing recommendations, including those for common threshold standards, a "national" external examiner system and codes of practice to be enforced via funding mechanisms.
No one would like to see a greater consistency in institutional practice on collaboration than me, although serious abuses of power have been few. Neither has anyone done more to urge greater clarity and consistency of practice between institutions on academic standards. Nor am I questioning the need for national support for institutions in moving towards these objectives. But experience suggests that there can be a fine line between reinforcing institutional responsibility and removing it altogether through some form of bureaucratic accreditation. There is in my view a real danger that de facto, if not de jure, responsibility for quality and standards will pass away from institutions. How can this be avoided?
First, we need to agree that quality assurance (as opposed to periodic external quality evaluation) is an institutional responsibility, and not the responsibility of the funding council, the QAA, or the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (or the Teacher Training Agency, this or that professional body, EdExcel, etc).
Second, institutions need to reaffirm that they take their responsibility for the standards of their awards and the associated programmes seriously, and that these responsibilities extend to all provision offered in their name.
Third, institutions need to review the ways in which these responsibilities are exercised. Where there is a sharing of responsibilities inside or with partners outside, institutions need to be sure that this is counterbalanced by effective mechanisms of information and accountability. There are various ways in which this can be done but some sort of internal audit mechanism is one way of achieving this.
Fourth, there needs to be permanent machinery in the form of institution-wide committees with appropriate professional support, closely linked to senate or academic board, to receive audit and other relevant information and to recommend or oversee any consequential actions.
Fifth, sharing of responsibilities within the institution may need formal recognition or acknowledgement. The need for a formal, legal agreement between collaborating institutions has been generally accepted (although by no means universally practised). But there may also be a need for a "compact" between the centre and the faculties since otherwise people can just shuffle off their responsibilities.
Finally, to be fully effective, this institution-wide machinery needs to be accountable and to have an element of enhancement. It is a strong common finding of both audit and teaching quality assessment that enhancement mechanisms in institutions are weak. One task of such machinery could be to promote the identification and dissemination of good practice across the institution.
Roger Brown was formerly chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council. This article is based on his recent inaugural lecture at Middlesex University, where he is now a visiting professor at the school of lifelong learning and education.