Quick fix, poor quality

June 23, 1995

The Higher Education Funding Council for England proposals for the development of quality assurance received a pretty severe mauling by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.

The strong and sustained criticism, not to say anger, which the proposals provoked came from across the spectrum of both old and new universities. One vice chancellor said he had never seen the CVCP so close to unanimity!

Here are some of the reasons for the reaction.

* HEFCE proposes the abolition of the Higher Education Quality Council with its audit functions transferring to the funding council. Yet universities have much more confidence in the work of HEQC than in that of HEFCE. In particular, its rigorous approach to audit and its important work on enhancement have had a major impact on continuous quality improvement. The HEFCE proposals ignore quality improvement. They are concerned solely with inspection. Most gains of the past few years will be lost and in the long run quality will suffer.

* There will be an intensification of subject assessment from 0 to 400 visits a year, an average of about five per university. Moreover, these visits will cover audit questions as well. So instead of a comprehensive audit once every five years, we will be subjected to a mini-audit five times each year. This is hardly the "less intrusive and burdensome" arrangements which Gillian Shephard sought when she commissioned the HEFCE report. One less body, yes, but far more work for universities. This is implicitly admitted in the fact that the proposed new arrangements, far from saving money, will cost more than at present.

* There will still be the possibility of a full-scale audit if the funding council has cause for alarm. There seems to be no understanding that an audit carried out in a crisis situation is very different from one that is part of a regular systematic programme. It will provoke defensiveness rather than openness in the universities subjected to it.

* The increased intensity of subject inspection is quite perverse. It is as if HEFCE has learned nothing from its experience of the past three years. During that time there have been more than 1,000 assessments in a range of subjects across all universities. The number of unsatisfactory ratings is running at 1 per cent. This is a remarkable record. A reasonable conclusion would be that on the basis of this substantial sample it can safely be assumed that universities are delivering on their commitment to quality and those responsible for public funds can be reassured. The obvious implication is that a less intrusive system should be introduced, one for example that operated on sampling and spot checks to ensure that the high record identified by the first 1,000 visits is being maintained. Instead, we get proposals for more not less assessment, implying that the outcome of the first 1,000 assessments has been to generate less trust in universities.

* The HEFCE proposals for the conduct of assessment visits are a rehash of Option Five in their originally secret report last March. If anything, they have become less institutionally-friendly. Previously it had been proposed that visiting panels should consist of equal numbers of internal and external members. Now the internal membership is reduced to one.

* The HEFCE takeover of quality assurance is complete. Not only would there be no separation between the arrangements for quality assurance and for funding, itself very dangerous, but HEFCE would control the process by which such separation will be considered. The report offers a glimpse of a possibility of the creation of a more independent body in the 21st century if HEFCE is persuaded at that time!

* Despite the Secretary of State saying in her original remit that she would wish to consult her colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no evidence of any involvement of funding bodies outside England in the development of these proposals. This will do nothing for the Prime Minister's desire to preserve the Union.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the HEFCE proposals is the poverty of thinking and imagination they betray and the wasted opportunity they represent. The time should have been used to seek agreement to this question: "What are the needs of a quality assurance system for higher education into the 21st century, ie who needs to be assured about what, and what can we learn from our experiences in recent years on how these needs can be met?" Instead, the funding council has cobbled together a blatantly self-serving set of proposals that does not even ask these questions, let alone try to answer them.

One cheap riposte to these criticisms is that critics such as myself are opposed to external scrutiny. Emphatically not so. Every one of the alternatives which have been suggested by a wide range of people and organisations including the chairman of CVCP, the HEQC or the individual proposals published regularly in The THES accept the absolute necessity for external accountability, scrutiny and peer review. It is the nature and form of such accountability which is at issue. A common theme of most proposals is internally-organised peer review including external oversight by an independent body with which the funding council would have a relationship.

Mrs Shephard would be unwise to accept the HEFCE proposals without giving herself an opportunity to consider the institutional response. The CVCP leadership can provide some guidance but there is no substitute, as she has no doubt found over her broader higher education review, for direct contact with the relevant parties. Only HEFCE at present has any information on the universities' responses to their original proposals - and they have kept those to themselves.

An alternative approach would be for the Secretary of State herself to establish a group without at this stage committing herself to any particular proposals. This group would include representatives of CVCP/HEQC, HEFCE and some independent members. It would have an independent chairman chosen with the agreement of all interested parties (what a pity Sir Ron Dearing is unlikely to be available). If it was really bold it might try to secure representation from other parts of the United Kingdom. Its remit would be to address the questions about the future needs of a quality assurance system and to consider all proposals.

The most puzzling aspect of this whole exercise has been the time-scale. What is the hurry? The HEFCE has previously announced its intention to continue with its assessment activities for some years ahead. The HEQC has a full programme of work through 1996. Despite the waste of the past six months there is still time for a more considered approach. What we determine now will take us well into the 21st century. What we need is the right decision, not a quick fix.

Leslie Wagner is vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University.

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